Researchers entertained by selectman's infectious tune
The venue was not exactly the Roxy nightclub or a spot on the Late Show with Island summer resident David Letterman, but the audience was world-class.
Yesterday, Tristan Israel - Tisbury selectman, landscaper, and musician - was scheduled to perform for researchers and students from around the world gathered at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole for the Fifth International Conference on Tularemia.
The four-day event is an opportunity for nearly 300 scientists to share information on the bacteriology, molecular genetics, ecology, and host response to the Francisella bacteria, which causes the infectious disease that has become well known on Martha's Vineyard.
Musician Tristan Israel at a previous concert. Photo by Ralph Stewart
Why Mr. Israel instead of Island singer James Taylor? He has the unique distinction of being a tularemia victim and tularemia song composer.
Mr. Israel's bona fides are listed on the schedule that has him following a presentation (a tough act to follow?) by Wolf Splettstoesser of the Bundeswehr Institute, Germany speaking on the topic: "Re-emergence of tularemia in Germany."
The schedule reads: "5 pm. Welcome to the Vineyard from Tristan Israel, Tisbury selectmen, musician and 2000 tularemia victim, followed immediately by reception and dinner."
According to Mr. Israel, following a bout with tularemia in 2000 he composed a song titled "Tularemia." Somehow a group of research scientists heard his song and decided the lyrics went well with beer.
So among presenters like Arne Tarnvik of Umea University, Sweden, talking about "Tularemia in humans - clinical expression, pathogenesis and host response," and Rick Titball of the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, United Kingdom, speaking on "Identification of immunogenic proteins of F. tularenis using a proteome chip," the attendees will get to hear Tristan Israel sing:
"... Tula...Tularemia, Tularemia in the air. Why and where did it come from? Is it ticks, is it skunks, is it hares?
Tula...Tularemia, Tularemia high, massive antibiotics and maybe you won't die!..."
The still unexplained high number of tularemia infections on Martha's Vineyard were the subject of more than song at the conference. Three medical professionals familiar with the Vineyard were also on yesterday's schedule.
Sam Telford of Tufts University, who has studied ticks on the Vineyard and Nantucket for years, spoke on the "Ecology of tularemia on Martha's Vineyard;" Bela Matyas, Mass Department of Public Health epidemiologist, spoke on the "Epidemiology of human infections on Martha's Vineyard;" and Dr. Henry Nieder, a Martha's Vineyard Hospital physician, spoke about "Clinical findings of tularemia on Martha's Vineyard."
The Vineyard, which experienced six confirmed cases of tularemia this summer, remains a hot spot for the disease and poses a challenge for researchers. In recent years, an unusually high number of pneumonic (airborne) tularemia cases have been diagnosed on the Vineyard. Exactly why remains a mystery despite research efforts.
The pneumonic form of the disease is the most dangerous and if left untreated has a mortality rate as high as 60 percent. Tularemia, sometimes called rabbit fever, is caused by the Francisella tularensis bacterium.
Small wild animals, mainly rabbits, carry the bacteria that cause the disease. Pneumonic tularemia is thought to occur when bacteria from an infected animal becomes airborne when the dead animal or the ground around it is stirred up during mowing, brush cutting, or excavating.
During past Island outbreaks, landscapers and brush-cutters have been advised to wear masks while working outside.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, people can get tularemia many different ways: being bitten by an infected tick, deerfly, or other insect; handling infected animal carcasses; eating or drinking contaminated food or water; and breathing in the bacteria.
Symptoms of a tularemia infection are similar to those of a bad case of flu. They may include fever and/or respiratory symptoms; chest congestion, tightness, or pain; lethargy; cough; or chills.
A CDC report said that tularemia is endemic to Martha's Vineyard. The worst occurrence was in the summer of 2000, when there were 15 cases confirmed on the Island and one death, the first confirmed tularemia death in the state since 1996. Local, state, and federal medical experts have been unable to provide any solid explanation for the outbreak of tularemia.
The characteristics of tularemia have also thrust it onto the front lines in the war on terror. Scientists around the world consider the bacterium a prime candidate for use as a bioterror agent because it occurs naturally and can be cultured.