Newspapers and television news reports have shrieked the appearance of new “superbugs” and the dangers they pose for humanity. “Deadly Superbug Scare: Flesh-Eating Germ in 31 of 63 State Hospitals” headlined the “Boston Herald” on March 7, 2013. ABC News Chief Health and Medical Editor Dr. Richard Besser proclaimed earlier on a March 6th newscast that “bacteria that start in hospitals often find their way out into the community. That would be a nightmare scenario.”
On March 11, the “Atlantic Wire” reported that public health officials in the United States and Great Britain were concerned about a potentially catastrophic threat to human health due to a spike in the appearance of the drug-resistant bacteria carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE). According to Dame Sally Davies, the United Kingdom’s chief medical officer, “If tough measures are not taken to restrict the use of antibodies and no new ones are discovered, we will find ourselves in a health system not dissimilar to the early 19th century at some point.”
Is it time to run for cover, avoid contact with other human beings, and prepare for Armageddon?
Bacteria and Viruses
Bacteria predates man in the evolutionary record, perhaps the first life form to arise on earth, dating back to 4 billion BCE. Some bacteria is beneficial, even essential to our life, helping us digest food, destroying disease-carrying cells within the body, and giving us essential vitamins. Other bacteria, however, produce toxins that are harmful to man and other animals, causing illness and death.
These malicious bacteria include the following:
- Streptococcus causes such illnesses as strep throat, scarlet fever, toxic shock syndrome, and necrotizing fasciitis (flesh-eating disease). It is a leading cause of death among newborns through blood infections, pneumonia, and meningitis.
- Staphylococcus is the common source of skin infections, as well as food and blood poisoning (bacteremia). Staph bacteria typically attacks the body through cuts, scratches, and punctures, all of which are common injuries on the battlefield and everyday life.
- Escherichia coli (commonly called E. coli) lives in the intestines and can cause diarrhea, dehydration, and kidney failure. Scientists believe that E. coli colonizes an infant’s intestinal tract within 40 hours of birth and remains within us for the rest of life.
Viruses are an even more fascinating and complex life form, which some scientists believe predates bacteria. Some researchers insist that viruses are not “living,” as they cannot exist outside a host organism. As the ultimate “stripped-down” parasite, a virus doesn’t leave fossils, typically inserting its genes into the cells of the host it infects.
Scientists do agree that viruses are likely the single most abundant and varied organism on the planet, existing in every form of life. Molecular biologists theorize that viruses infected early humans by being transferred in the DNA of our primate ancestors and were subsequently carried forward through evolution. These retroviruses, the source of such infections as smallpox, influenza, mumps, measles, herpes, hepatitis, HIV/AIDS, and Ebola, are actually integrated into human cell chromosomes, making up to 8% of the human genome.
Viruses have shown an ability to jump from one host class to another – plants to insects, insects to mammals, within different animal families – with great success (at least for the virus). Unlike bacteria, the majority of which are harmless, virtually all viruses cause disease. As Homo sapien sapien moved away from Africa and encountered new environments and new species of animals, new viral infections resulted, stimulated by the receptivity of new human hosts and the adaptability of the virus to change and morph into new forms.
Bacterial diseases are commonly treated with antibiotics or “antibacterials,” chemicals produced by other microorganisms that kill or prevent the growth of bacteria. Initially discovered by Alexander Fleming, a Scottish biologist in 1928, in the form of penicillin sp. as a fungus mold, his discovery revolutionized medicine and the treatment of infectious disease. Unfortunately, like all living organisms, bacteria continue to evolve. Due to the euphoria over a new cure, antibiotics have been over-prescribed so that many of the harmful bacteria developed a resistance to the new antibiotics.
However, antibiotics are not effective against viruses; not being living bodies, they cannot be killed. Some antivirals work by stimulating the body’s immune system to attack specific viruses. English physician Edward Jenner inoculated humans with a mild form of cowpox to provide protection against the deadly killer smallpox in 1796, using the body’s natural defenses to identify, seek out, and destroy the alien cells, as well as “remember” the infection for later attacks. On May 8, 1980, the World Health Assembly announced that the world was free of smallpox and recommended that all countries cease vaccination: “The world and all its people have won freedom from smallpox, which was the most devastating disease sweeping in epidemic form through many countries since earliest times, leaving death, blindness, and disfigurement in its wake.” Similar treatments for other viral infections subsequently appeared after Jenner’s discovery.
Vaccination has been particularly successful against stable viruses like mumps, German measles, and polio. However, like bacteria, viruses can also mutate quickly, acquiring a drug-resistant gene so vaccination is not effective. For example, influenza mutates so quickly that vaccinations that work one year don’t work the following year; the virus causing HIV can mutate in a single infection. Fortunately, the research for treatment continued with “antivirals” discovered in the 1980s, and has been followed by the development of Double-Stranded RNA Activated Caspase Oligomerizer (DRACO) in 2011. In theory, scientists believe that DRACO will work effectively against all viruses.
The war between humans and harmful microorganisms has been occurring throughout history. New treatments and cures are constantly being discovered, usually reducing the spread and consequences of harmful disease for a while until the organisms develop their own defenses (a process called “antimicrobial resistance”) against the treatment and renew the battle. The appearance of new drug-resistant bacteria and viruses, what we now call “superbugs,” is just another chapter in the history of the continuing conflict.
The Likelihood of Infection
Despite the sensationalism, death by infectious disease in the United States is relatively rare. Malaria and tuberculosis, two of the world’s most virulent killers, are virtually nonexistent in the United States, and new cases of HIV are becoming less frequent every day with public education and preventive actions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported a total of 1,975,966 cases of infectious disease for the 2010 year, affecting less than 1 of a 1,000 people. More than one-half of the diseases were sexually transmitted (Chlamydia trachomatis, gonorrhea, and syphilis).
Horrific diseases like dengue hemorrhagic fever, hantavirus, plague, and viral hemorrhagic fever, frequently highlighted in books and movies for their excruciating, destructive effects on victims, appeared in less than 35 cases, a lower figure than the number of shark attacks in North America in 2012. While the consequences of infectious disease can be devastating, the likelihood of such diseases reaching epidemic levels in this country are low.
Common Preventive Actions
While the odds are in your favor if you live in an industrialized country such as the United States, smart people don’t whistle by the graveyard. By taking proper steps to prevent sickness and stay healthy, you can minimize the chances that you or your family members will be affected by a potentially fatal infectious disease:
1. Maintain Good Health With Proper Diet and Exercise
Infectious disease is transferred through contact with contaminated food, water, fecal material, body fluids, and animal products – only a few can be transmitted through the air. Following a proper, healthy diet and regular exercise with common sense attention to the materials you consume, use, and touch is your best and most obvious protection against illness. The greatest killers of humans – heart attacks and cancers – are not infectious diseases, but result, for the most part, from obesity, lack of exercise, and the harmful habits of tobacco and alcohol use.
2. Keep Immunizations Current
The greatest breakthrough in the treatment of infectious disease has been the continuous development of effective vaccines in the last century. Currently, there are 17 targeted vaccine-preventable diseases in the U.S. today including cervical cancer, hepatitis A and B, influenza (seasonal), measles, mumps, polio, rubella, smallpox, and tuberculosis. Young children, after losing their “maternal immunity” during the first year of life, and the elderly with their weakened immune systems are particularly vulnerable to infection and death, so ensuring that vaccinations are up-to-date is critical.
3. Wash Hands Regularly With Antimicrobial Soap
Good hygiene is the single most effective tool against getting sick. Always wash your hands after coughing, sneezing, or using the bathroom for at least 20 seconds. Use an alcohol-based sanitizer regularly, particularly if you use common tools, office equipment, or telephones.
4. Seek Regular Health Screenings and Tests
According to the CDC, regular health exams help find problems before they get started; early detection increases the chances for effective treatment, minimizes potential health consequences, and promotes ultimate cure and recovery. The CDC provides easy-to-read schedules for immunizations for all ages.
5. Avoid the Hospital
While hospitals are essential for the treatment of disease and trauma, almost 100,000 people die annually from an infectious disease contracted while they were in the hospital. Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA), an infection that attacks the skin, is fairly easy to catch; just touching something an infected person has touched (such as a door handle) can spread the disease. Respiratory infections like the flu and the common cold (a disease caused by more than 200 different viruses) are extremely contagious, and can be picked up just sitting in a crowded waiting room.
If you need to go the hospital, consider wearing a face mask while you are there, and be sure to wash your hands frequently. If you’re a patient, be sure that your physician and attendees wash their hands before treating you.
6. Limit Foreign Travel
Underdeveloped countries often lack sterile water supplies, regulations to ensure that food is safe and properly prepared, and inadequate sanitary conditions. Infectious diseases that have almost disappeared in America may be common. If you travel to foreign sites, be sure your inoculations are up-to-date and you maintain good hygiene practices. Bottled drinking water for brushing teeth and washing is often necessary, as well as avoiding food of uncertain origin prepared unsupervised.
A new infectious disease has been discovered almost every year for the past 30 years, according to the 2012 Annual Report of the United Kingdom’s Chief Medical Officer. Many of these diseases are resistant to current antibiotics and have earned the moniker “superbugs.” Fortunately, such diseases are relatively rare in the United States: Less than 5% of American hospitals saw one case in 2012. But the threat is real with only a “limited opportunity to stop the spread” of these superbugs, according to CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden.
In the past, our scientists have successfully overcome previous mutations of our microorganism enemies, preventing world-wide epidemics and deaths. It is probable that they will yet again rise to the occasion, ending the threat of this specific microorganism permutation. But the war continues, and a new challenge will again appear.
What do you think? Are you worried about superbugs? What are you doing to protect your family?