Rae Ellen Bichell

Rae Ellen Bichell is a reporter for NPR's Science Desk. She first came to NPR in 2013 as a Kroc fellow and has since reported Web and radio stories on biomedical research, global health, and basic science. She won a 2016 Michael E. DeBakey Journalism Award from the Foundation for Biomedical Research. After graduating from Yale University, she spent two years in Helsinki, Finland, as a freelance reporter and Fulbright grantee.

In the first century, a doctor called Aretaeus of Cappadocia described the rotting smell of "Egyptian ulcers." Ancient Chinese medical literature mentions a disease called "children-killing carbuncle." In 17th century Spain there were references to an illness known as "the strangler."

Fake birth control pills. Cough syrup for children that contained a powerful opioid. Antimalarial pills that were actually just made of potato and cornstarch.

These are, according to the World Health Organization, just a few examples of poor-quality or fake medicines identified in recent years.

In early autumn, it became clear that something was not right in Madagascar.

The country often sees small outbreaks of the bubonic plague, which comes from an infection spread by a flea bite. The disease is now easily treatable with antibiotics.

But this time, the number of cases was growing quickly, and the bacterial infection was spreading in a different, more serious form.

A 79-year-old man picked up an object with his left hand and suddenly felt a sharp pain in his shoulder. Something moved in his upper arm. And with that, he was Popeye.

His right arm looked the same as it always had: lean and sagging a little with age. But his left biceps now sported a baseball-size bulge that looked like it could land a powerful punch. The brand-new muscle mound looked even bigger when the man flexed his biceps. The only thing was, it hurt. A lot.

The day Dr. Roberto Montenegro finished his Ph.D. was memorable. But not for the right reasons.

"I still cringe when I think about it," says Montenegro.

It had started well. His colleagues at UCLA had taken him and his girlfriend (now wife) out to a fancy restaurant to celebrate.

An outbreak of the plague is growing in Madagascar.

Abstinence may have found its most impressive poster child yet: Diploscapter pachys. The tiny worm is transparent, smaller than a poppy seed and hasn't had sex in 18 million years.

It has basically just been cloning itself this whole time. Usually, that is a solid strategy for going extinct, fast. What is its secret?

In the spring of 2016, there was a frenzy over the threat of Zika virus at Brazil's Olympic Games. As infections reached their peak, a group of scientists called for the games to be moved somewhere else. A number of athletes, worried about sexually transmitting the virus to pregnant partners, chose to stay home.

But a group of researchers with University of Utah and the United States Olympic Committee announced Saturday that they weren't able to find any evidence that U.S. Olympians, Paralympians or staff got Zika virus at all.

This past weekend, basketball players from island nations across the Indian Ocean converged in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, to face off in the regional championships. But no one was to cheer on the teams. The bleachers were empty — because of the plague.

Many of the images we associate with the plague actually depict leprosy or smallpox. In fact, there are very few images of the Black Death from the time of the scourge.

A few weeks ago, I reported a story about three cases of the plague in New Mexico. The bacterial illness pops up fairly regularly around the globe but is now easily treatable with antibiotics, if caught in time.

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