Bacteria and Viruses on the Rise !
In 2005, there were a few health problems in Florida, when several children became very ill after visiting a local Petting Zoo . These are family oriented zoo's, where children can stroke and even feed the animals.
The parents want their children to learn about "real wild" animals, the children are enchanted by the sad eyes of the imprisoned critters, and the owners earn a little pocket money. Benefits all around ...
After their visit, twenty-three children and three adults became very ill, and had to be transported to the hospital. They were found to be suffering from an infection with the traditional bacterium Escherichia Colli .
What is E. Colli ?
These bacteria are constantly present in our intestines, and they work in perfect symbiosis with our body. However, sometimes a mutation appears, usually after cross contact with other bacteria, whereby they exchange characteristics.
Actually, the variant E. coli O157: H7 is very often present in animals, who don't get sick at all. But if and when these bacteria cross over to humans, these get very sick !
Scientists still don't know how bacteria cross the human-animal boundary.
This mutation has an extraordinary resistance against conventional antibiotics, and in humans it produces a toxin that not only causes bloody diarrhea, but can also in some cases completely lock up the kidneys. The only treatment for children is a kidney dialysis and intravenous nutrition, in the hope that eventually the kidneys resume their normal job.
What is new to the human variant of this bacterium is that earlier it could only be sustained after eating contaminated food, usually meat.
The bacteria get into the intestines and begin their destructive work. A simple and adequate protection is to cook the meat before eating it, which is the reason why one should never eat an improperly cooked hamburger. However, as a potential remedy to eradicate the bacteria, it might arguably be rather inconvenient to cook young children in a large casserole...
Most probably they incurred the bacteria after petting the animals, and then they put their hands into their mouths. Normally our saliva destroys most invaders, but these bacteria seem to be immune to saliva.
A few local "hype" politicians immediately leapt onto the media band wagon, and fielded a rather peculiar bill proposal, whereby it was declared to be illegal to eat after a physical contact with animals. Also, hand washing was to be made mandatory.
Fortunately for the citizens, cooler heads prevailed. Why indeed should completely normal hygiene measures be imposed by law ?
The Golden Staph
Somewhat less publicly known is the bacterium Staphylococcus Aureus . In some occasions, it has been tagged with the somewhat obscure acronym of MRSA , for Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus.
These bacteria are normally massively present in our skin, and they can cause pimples or even open wounds, if our immune system fails to eliminate them rapidly.
In surgery practice, the "Golden Staph " has become a very tough rascal, that can cause nasty infections in cuts, wounds, blood and the lungs. Furthermore, it has built up a strong resistance against conventional antibiotics based on penicillin, and so most hospitals have become very cautious with these cases.
What is worrisome, is that infections with this bacterium used to be found only in and around hospitals, homes for seniors and health centra in general, but the resistant variants now also appear in prisons, schools and sports centers.
At first, scientists assumed that they "blew over" from hospitals, but a more recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine shows that 17% of the cases appear from inside the community, without any link to a hospital !
To make the story still more "interesting", another study in the same journal shows that the resistant "Golden Staph" may even assume a "flesh-eating" attribute from its cousin Streptococcus.
In Los Angeles, fourteen patients were diagnosed with the very exceptional Necrotizing Fasciitis. In understandable language this means that they were simply eaten alive by the bacteria... The only remedy is to surgically remove the infected part. Never before had Staph been associated with this terrible disease.
But viral infections also increase head over hand. Scientists believe that at least three quarters of all infectious viruses originated in the animal kingdom. Therefore the so called insurmountable boundary between animal and human kingdom has been breached !
If we examine the past, yellow fever and plague (rodents), tuberculosis (goats), typhoid (chickens), measles (cows), flu (ducks), smallpox and leprosy all have made the transition from the animal kingdom. This trend is extremely worrying.
In Angola fifty people were killed by the Marburg hemorrhagic virus, also known as the Green Monkey virus because of its origins. The AIDS-virus is derived from nonhuman primates, Lyme disease was transmitted to us by deer, the Hanta-virus was spread by mice and the West Nile-virus by birds. The SARS-virus probably came from Civet cats, and the bird flu comes from chickens !
The "Center for Disease Control" or CDC follows the human-to-human diseases closely and the "Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service" of the Ministry of Agriculture examines the animal-to-animal diseases. But no organization specializes in animal-to-human diseases, simply because such evolution was considered impossible, until recently.
In early times people lived in small tribes, and there was relatively little contact with other people. The few genetic diseases they knew at that time were probably limited to herpes, hepatitis and malaria. However, through their prey they came into contact with infectious diseases such as anthrax (wild sheep) and tularemia (rabbit).
As man evolved from a hunter to an agrarian, he started living among his sheep, goats, chickens, rabbits, horses and cows.
The infectious disease of Tuberculosis comes from the goats, and it has even been detected in 7,000 year old mummies ! It is estimated that just this one disease was responsible for more than 100 million deaths in the 19th century.
Measles reached us from the cows, as a small mutation of the cow virus Rinderpest. Although this latter disease is now regarded as relatively unimportant, along with smallpox it killed more than half of the American Indians, and an estimated 200 million people around the world !
The Plague - Influenza
The diseases spread rapidly when people banded together in villages and towns. Their growth and the unhygienic conditions brought rats and other vermin with them, who carried the lice that spread the Plague. This bubonic bacterium lived for thousands of years in marmots and other small rodents in central Asia, but it never caused any significant damage.
Along with the caravans, these lice moved to the Mediterranean area and created havoc in the tightly packed European crowds. In ancient writings we read that already in 500 AD, the Plague of Justinian killed about 100 million people. In the year 1300 the disease returned, and it mowed down a third of the entire European population !
The Influenza virus exists since millions of years in waterfowls, and usually it doesn't cause much damage. When however it transmits to pigs or humans, it mutates and can cause a true pandemic in humans, as it did when it killed 20 million people in 1918.
In Southeast Asia the typical farming pattern is that ducks, chickens, pigs and people are all packed together in a small space, which is an ideal natural laboratory to come up with new mutations... Which is the reason why almost every year a new flu virus comes from this region as yet another "Asian Flu".
The Spread of "New" Diseases
The Internet allows easy orders for about every conceivable exotic animal. You can obtain a kangaroo in your mailbox, after payment of the bargain price of $ 6,000. Alas, some unwary buyers unintentionally imported Salmonella along with their exotic Iguana, and Monkey Smallpox along with their cute marmots...
Modern technology is partly to blame for the spreading of "new" diseases. A debatable "progress" in modern food was for instance the prion that causes Mad Cow Disease, or in more learned words, Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy. Unfortunately, this contamination didn't remain limited to cattle, but also made the jump to the human kingdom !
In 2003, the airlines were directly responsible for the phenomenally rapid spread of SARS in 30 countries, and on five continents. In underdeveloped countries, the recycling of non-sterilized disposable needles is the major culprit in the spread of diseases such as hepatitis, AIDS, Ebola and Lassa fevers.
What does the Future hold ?
But the danger doesn't only lie in underdeveloped countries. What will Global Warming entail in the future, in mega-cities of more than 20 million people ?
Far worse than what we know, is what we DON'T know. There are an estimated five thousand viruses, and far more than one million bacteria, most of which are still unknown.
They can infect all of the 4,500 known mammals, including humans. But almost nothing is known about the microbes that infect birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish or lower animals.
Undoubtedly, there will be many surprises in our future.
Recent research seems to indicate that Multiple Sclerosis could be caused by a dog virus, that the horse bacterium Chlamydia Pneumoniae could be responsible for Atherosclerosis Heart Diseases, and that Schizophrenia could result from the cat bacterium Taxoplasma Gondii.
Liver Cancer and genetic hepatitis viruses also seem to be linked, as is the almost indestructible Helicobacter Pylori and Gastric Cancer...