Four Hippos All Alone
Birth Control for Colombia's "Cocaine" Hippos
It’s not the midterm elections yet (thank goodness, I’m not ready for the possibility of the Dems losing one or both houses of Congress) but many people go to the polls next week and lots of us will have to make decisions about who should and shouldn’t be on our local school board. It’s tempting to write these off as inconsequential, but anyone who has watched the sex ed debate for the last 100 years knows they’re not. In most states and communities, school boards have a lot to say about what is taught and what is banned in the classroom. In the last two weeks alone a Utah school board voted to remove a dating violence prevention program because it was too explicit; a New Jersey school board defied the state’s mandate to teach about LGBTQ history asking for more time to make sure “… nothing perverse [is] being forced on our children under the guise of equity and tolerance;” and a school board in Washington decided to ask all questions on a health survey except the ones about sex.
Today, debates at school board meetings range from mask mandates to preventing trans athletes from playing to banning critical race theory (which was never taught in the first place). The far right has used school boards as a proving ground for their wedge issues (let’s see what we gets parents’ knickers in a twist) which they then use on a bigger stage. Just look at the now-tight Governor’s race in Virginia. Republicans there have made mask mandates and critical race theory in schools key issues and stoked outrage through “Parents Matter” rallies.
Conservatives have a school board playbook that they’ve used across the country and across issues, and it often works because voters aren’t paying attention to the most local of races. I get it. In my politically homogenous town, it can be hard to tell one candidate from another as their platforms sound mostly identical. (For what it’s worth, I usually choose the ones who are or have been professional educators because I don’t trust that personal chefs, lawyers, or stockbrokers really know how to run a school no matter how concerned they are about the children.) I imagine in other places the differences are starker. Regardless of where you live, consider this my PSA to pay attention to your school board elections and vote carefully next week.
Nope, You Don’t Have to Fear a Flesh-Eating STI
A whole host of headlines this week from Fox News to Forbes to USA Today offered a dire warning about a flesh-eating STI that was on the rise. The best headline is probably from the U.K. outlet the Mirror which blared, “Flesh-eating STI that rots genitals from inside out on rise - as warnings issued.” Read the articles, however, and you will note that these headlines are far from accurate. The STI, known as donovanosis, does not eat your genitals from the inside out or the outside in, it is not on the rise, and no warnings have been issued.
This media frenzy seems to stem from one article in a local U.K. paper, The Birmingham Mail, in which a doctor from a London clinic was quoted as saying: "Figures suggest that donovanosis - which was previously thought to be restricted to places including India, Brazil and New Guinea - is becoming more common on these shores." It’s understandable how this quote—combined with pictures of the particularly unattractive genital sores caused by this STI—could have raised alarms, but the real story is milder.
Donovanosis is a bacterial infection that is passed through skin-to-skin contact. The CDC says that the disease causes painless ulcers or lesions on the genitals or perineum (the area between the genitals and the anus) that are grossly described as “beefy-red.” The sores might bleed and can become infected with secondary bacteria (as is true of open wounds in general).
Donovanosis is treatable with antibiotics if caught early and properly diagnosed, but if left untreated it can cause skin discoloration and scarring of the genitals. The scarring can in turn lead to permanent inflammation of the genitals. The STI can also spread to the pelvis and internal organs in the abdomen. While there’s no doubt that this is an infection none of us want, even the most alarmist articles admit that calling it flesh-eating is a bit of a stretch. The Birmingham Mail article that kicked up this ruckus says: “Donovanosis does not actually eat your flesh but has been dubbed 'flesh-eating' due to its gory appearance on the skin.”
Saying cases are on the rise in the U.K. is also a little bit of a stretch (or at best a year too late). Cases there did rise from 19 in 2016 to 30 in 2019, but 2020 data suggests they’re back down with only 18 cases. That’s 18 cases in a population of over 67 million.
There are about 100 cases reported in the U.S. each year and most are among people who have been traveling to areas where it is more common, such as southeast India, Guyana, and New Guinea. Apparently, the disease used to be endemic in Australia as well, but they got it under control. To put this all in perspective, there were 1,808,703 cases of chlamydia, 616,392 cases of gonorrhea, and 129,813 cases of syphilis reported in the U.S. in 2019.
I prefer accuracy to alarm, but I guess clickbait STI headlines are not all bad. We have a real STI epidemic in this country, but most people don’t think they are at risk despite boring headlines like “Chlamydia Reaches Record High” and “Antibiotic Resistant Gonorrhea on the Rise” that run every year. Maybe a new flesh-eating boogeyman is what we need to get people to take STI seriously. The prevention tactics—limiting sexual partners, using condoms every time, getting tested for STIs regularly, and going to a health care provider at the first sign of anything sore-like (beefy or not) on your genitals—are the same regardless of whether you’re afraid of the STI that a handful of vacationers came home with or one that millions of your peers get each year.
Four Hippos All Alone Overpopulated Colombia
The hippo population in Colombia has gone berserk and experts have decided it’s time for a little birth control.
In the 1980s, drug lord Pablo Escobar smuggled one male and three female hippopotami to his private zoo outside of Bogotá. When he died, many of his other exotic animals were relocated to zoos around the world but officials decided that moving these animals—which weigh somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 pounds as adults—would be too difficult.
Left to their own devices, the “cocaine hippos” procreated. A lot. Today, there are at least 80 hippos wandering the area and the family has spread out more than 100 miles from their original location. Hippos are not native to South America and the large population has become a problem for the environment and the people living in it. Hippos pose a threat to agriculture, their waste affects oxygen levels in the water (which is bad for fish), and sometimes they actually go berserk. In May 2020, a 45-year-old man was seriously hurt in a hippo attack.
Experts have been working on ways to control the hippo population for years. Plans to cull the herd were met with a lawsuit, so experts are turning to contraception. They started with surgical sterilization but as you can imagine operating on such a large beast is difficult; officials only managed to sterilize 11 of the animals (it’s not clear whether these were male or female). The new plan announced last week involves GonaCon, a contraceptive developed by scientist at U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Service.
GonaCon is actually a vaccine given to both male and female animals. It stimulates an animal’s body to produce antibodies that bind to GnRH (gonadotropin-releasing hormone). GnRH is the hormone that causes our bodies (animal and human) to produce sex hormones like estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. The immune response caused by the vaccine neutralizes GnRH which means the body doesn’t make sex hormones. Without sex hormones, the animal becomes infertile and not all that interested in procreating anyhow. GonaCon, which can last for two to four years, is most commonly used on deer in the United States but has also been used on wild animals, including California ground squirrels, Norway rats, feral cats and dogs, feral swine, wild horses, and elk.
This is the first time it’s been used on hippos. Officials say that have successfully vaccinated 24 animals thus far using darts but some people continue to be opposed to this plan.
Which brings us to the late-breaking part of our story. On Monday, a U.S. Court in Ohio granted the hippos legal personhood. Some of us already anthropomorphize hippos, but this ruling was less about whether they are capable of showing up to a party overdressed or serving endless bowls of split pea soup to their best friends and more about whether U.S. experts could weigh in on a foreign lawsuit.
That suit, filed in Colombia on behalf of the hippos, seeks to stop the use of GonaCon in favor of a different contraceptive that has actually been used on hippos. The Animal Legal Defense Fund, a U.S.-based advocacy group, would like its experts to be deposed in this case and in order to do this the hippos needed to be declared “interested persons.” In a statement, the ALDF praised the court for allowing the hippos to “exercise their legal rights to obtain information.”
Now, I’m picturing a hippo wearing reading glasses, sitting in a leather chair, thumbing through pages of legal documents. Fodder for Sandra Boynton’s next book?