The History of Beaver Fever (Giardia)

As young, science-loving students, many of us were first introduced to the basic cell structure with an explanation of Antony van Leeuwenhoek’s discovery of a jail “cell” under a microscope. He was actually observing his own feces when he happened upon Giardia. However, at the time, he was unaware of the implications of this protozoan (1).

Antony van Leeuwenhoek: A Selfie

Giardia is found in every region within the U.S. and also plentifully abroad. Globally, it affects around 280 million people per year. Though it is not usually fatal in developed nations, it becomes problematic in regions with ill-equipped sanitation systems. The parasite causes diarrhea, nausea, and dehydration, and it is transmitted via contaminated water or by the spread of infected feces. The cure consists of a typical series of antibiotic therapy, hence why it is typically not fatal (2).

In 1859, two hundred years after van Leeuwenhoek’s accidental discovery, a Czech physician named Vilem Lambl also identified Giardia. He was treating a child with diarrhea and noticed the organism in a stool sample. Because of this discovery, Giardia was then referred to as Giardia lamblia. Still, at this time, he was not aware that G. lamblia was the pathogen causing the child’s diarrhea.

It was not until the 1950s and 1960s that the protozoan was officially deemed a parasite. This was due to the work of RC Rendtorff and JD Karapetyan. Rendtorff initially made the connection that G. lamblia was associated with a patient’s infection, and a decade later, Karapetyan was finally able to culture the parasite. Once this was accomplished, the name officially changed to G. intestinalis (1).

Nowadays, the parasite is so common that you can even find a slang term for its infection on the trendy website, “Urban Dictionary”. In popular culture, “beaver fever” is the phrase used to indicate someone’s run-in with G. intestinalis. This term came about because many believe that beavers are major contributors to the spread of the pathogen due to their aquatic homes (3). Considering it took several hundred years for it to be accurately verified as the widespread menace that it is, Giardia does not seem to be leaving any time soon. It will continue to affect human populations with unsafe water systems, including those on the University of Pittsburgh’s Oakland campus.




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