Three Mystery Epidemics

The World Health Organization is an under-appreciated institution, which often takes on critical tasks. For example, in 2011 it brokered an agreement to end a controversy about viral sample sharing particularly related to avian influenza. This agreement will greatly help with the development of pre-pandemic vaccines, but such achievements attract little press coverage. The WHO receives much more press when it acts as the world’s medical sleuth. When invited, it quickly arrives on the scene wherever a new disease is emerging. At the moment there are no fewer than three new diseases that merit the WHO’s attention. Although they may not each be the next SARS, they all have worrisome aspects.

The Mystery of the Arctic Sea

"Sea Victim" by Evgeni Dinev at
“Sea Victim” by Evgeni Dinev at

In July 2009 the world was fascinated by the mystery surrounding the cargo ship the Arctic Sea. American owned, Canadian operated, based in Malta, and with a Russian crew, the ship had taken on a load of timber in Finland, which it was delivering to Algeria. It never arrived. After passing through the English channel, its tracking system was shut off, and the ship disappeared from the world. It was amazing enough that in an era of satellites and modern navigation systems an entire ship could disappear. But then came the remarkable announcement that in July the ship had been taken over by pirates in the waters off Sweden. The men had approached the ship, and -in English- claimed to be police. They took over the ship, and interrogated the crew, before leaving hours later. But first they allegedly had disabled communications equipment and confiscated the crews’ phones. This was unusual enough, as there had been no pirates in the Baltic in living memory, or for centuries for that matter. The ship was in one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. Even stranger, however, was what happened next- the ship continued on its way without stopping for authorities to investigate the crime (for a timeline of events, click here). …

The Vela Incident

Image of satellite courtesy of dream designs at freedigitalphotos

On September 22, 1979 an aging American spy satellite detected a powerful flash of light that was so deep in the southern oceans that it was unclear if the flash was in the South Atlantic or the Indian ocean. National Security authorities soon notified President Jimmy Carter that there had been a nuclear test. But had there really been one? The issue mattered because at the heart of the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treat of 1963 was the belief that the United States (and the Soviet Union) could detect clandestine explosions. The President convened a special task force to determine what the satellite had observed. In the end, the committee decided that the flash most likely resulted from a micro-meteorite hitting the satellite, rather than an event on earth. Many defense observers with considerable expertise held a different view. The debate has continued over three decades, with the consensus shifting as first one piece of new evidence comes forward, only to be countered by the next revelation. So what exactly happened deep over the southern oceans? …

The Lost Island of Bermeja

The world is filled with mythical islands, maybe because the idea of an isolated place evokes ideas of a utopia. Perhaps that is why Judith Schalansky’s

Image of islands courtesy of Liz Noffsinger at freedigitalphotos

Atlas of Remote Islands became a popular book. But few mythical islands islands have been as enduring as Bermeja, which cartographers have been placing on maps off the coast of the Yucatan since Alonso de Santa Cruz first mentioned it in 1539.  In the nineteenth century something strange happened. The island disappeared, likely because it had never existed. But the power of this idea is so strong that people continue to look for it, including a BBC film crew.

What is more important, however, is the popular view of the island in Mexico. How is that an island that existed on maps for centuries could disappear? A cynic might wonder if map-makers had been copying each others’ maps for centuries. But within Mexico there are conspiracy theories, which argue that the United States destroyed it. Because Mexico lost so much of its national territory to the United States in the U.S.-Mexican War, there is a profound distrust of the U.S. in Mexico. Much of Mexico’s national budget comes from the operations of the state oil company PEMEX, which pumps much of its oil from the Gulf of Mexico. And a June 2000 treaty between Mexico and the United States defined rights to oil reserves based on the distance from U.S. or Mexican territory, in particular islands. For this reason, one can find Youtube clips blaming the United States for dynamiting the island into oblivion, and calling on Mexicans to be aware of what has been stolen from them. Posts about this are easy to find on the web. Mexican radio stations and TV news also discuss this topic, as these Youtube clips (for those who speak Spanish) show. …

Mystery rocket launches off of L.A. and Newfoundland

On Monday, January 25th 2010, Darlene Stewart saw something remarkable in the skies over Harbour Mille, a small community in Southern Newfoundland. She grabbed her camera, and snapped a picture of what appeared to be a rocket shooting diagonally into the sky. Another witness said that the rocket appeared to be only one of three objects that seemed to come out of the ocean itself. As people in Harbour Mille tried to understand what they had seen, different branches of the Canadian government passed of the responsibility for answering questions amongst themselves: “Originally on Wednesday, the RCMP said questions about the alleged missile sightings were being handled by Public Safety Canada, which had no comment other than to refer questions back to the RCMP. Then on Thursday, that federal department referred questions to the PMO” (Prime Minister’s Office). …

Witches’ Broom: The Mystery of Chocolate and Bioterrorism in Brazil

Geographic and Genetic Population Differentiation of the Amazonian Chocolate Tree, Juan C. Motamayor, Philippe Lachenaud, Jay Wallace da Silva e Mota, Rey Loor, David N. Kuhn, J. Steven Brown, Raymond J. Schnell; from Wikipedia commons
“Geographic and Genetic Population Differentiation of the Amazonian Chocolate Tree,” Juan C. Motamayor, Philippe Lachenaud, Jay Wallace da Silva e Mota, Rey Loor, David N. Kuhn, J. Steven Brown, Raymond J. Schnell; from Wikipedia commons

When people think of chocolate, they may know that it roots stretch back to Mexico, where Aztec emperors used to drink a frothy concoction of cacao and chile. They are less likely to know that cacao originally came from the Amazon, most likely somewhere in Ecuador, which still has the most genetically diverse cacao trees. How it traveled north, perhaps on trading ships along the Pacific Coast, or overland through Central America,  we will never know. But its origins are less of a mystery, than the disappearance of chocolate in Northeastern Brazil beginning in the late 1980s.

Chocolate was originally brought from the Amazon to Brazil’s north-east in 1746. This region was colonial Brazil’s heartland, where the legacy of slavery had created a society defined by both poverty and social inequality.  I spent two months in Recife, Brazil in 1990, where I saw the gold and jewels in the Baroque churches, and the poverty in the countryside. This poverty -and the power of traditional elites- may have motivated one of the greatest crimes in all history, if such a crime actually took place. …

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