Castle, Caves, & Mummy Tombs: Microbes, not Curses, Lurk Within

I was recently watching an old episode of Castle, a great TV show focused on the exploits of a detective and detective fiction-writer who team up to solve murders in New York City, in which dengue fever was mentioned. 

The context was an investigation of a murder involving a museum exhibit of Mayan mummies. In recounting the bad luck of those who interacted with the mummy, it was mentioned that many had died suddenly. One of the deceased was said not to have died from a mystical course, but from dengue fever.

The incident provoked some thinking on my part regarding the old cliche of ancient tombs being cursed. Thinking of what pathogens can grow in remote dark dank caves led me to focus on a few:

  • Histoplasmosis: a fungal infection related to a fungus found in bat droppings
  • Aspergillosis: a fungus that is ubiquitous and can cause infection in immunocompromised individuals
  • Cryptococcus: another fungus associated with bats and caves
  • Ebola and Marburg: given their association with bats (see Kitum Cave in Kenya)
  • Staphylococcus and Pseudomonas bacteria

What most of these pathogens have in common is bats. Bats are one of the most numerous mammalian species on the planets and have a major role in the transmission of several diseases. In addition to the above, bats are major reservoirs for rabies, Hendra virus, SARS, (likely) MERS, and Nipah virus.

As for dengue, since it is transmitted by Aedes mosquitoes, I don't believe it poses a major risk within caves or to mummy aficionados--unless they are exploring in mosquito-laden environments.

Hopefully, however, dengue will be something of the past as a promising vaccine is moving toward licensure.