…but I follow the study of microbes and viruses as an interest I’ve had for years. They’re cool. They’re the smallest things in the world you can still call “alive” and they often times make their living by hunting us. That’s a bit dramatic, they don’t really “hunt” us, but they do successfully eat us. Regardless of the figures you have in your bank account, regardless of your political or religious leanings, regardless of skin color, sexual orientation, whatever. They eat us. (Okay, there are some resistances that are carried by different varieties of people, for instance people of African descent have a slightly higher resistance to malaria – a parasitic infection – due to their blood structure, which coincidentally also makes them more susceptible to sickle cell anemia).
This blog post on SciAm today reminded me of this, and inspired me to do a little writing on the subject.
Bacteria and viruses, when they cause disease, generally do so because they – or we – have not yet evolved to properly coexist in a developed relationship. Such relationships exist throughout nature…for example, you have thousands of different bacteria in and on you right now, and you are a carrier of them. Escheria coli, for instance, or a range of Staph bacteria live in your gut and on your skin, respectively. When our species – or our ancestor lines, since these have been with us very likely since before we were humans – first encountered these, it was likely a violent meeting. The ebola virus is a not-so-subtle reminder that when two species have their first meeting, it is often explosive. Ebola doesn’t know what to do with us, and we don’t know what to do with Ebola, so when it eats it just keeps going, and we have no natural method of stopping it – and it eats until there is no more left to eat.
And really, what occurs when a microbe and a human-size creature come to live with one another is that the large creature finds a way to survive, shunt off the worst effects, and sometimes even benefit from the presence of the microbe. The microbe, being unthinking, just goes on about its business of living, eating, reproducing, and dying.
Lately, though, we have inadvertently re-ignited some fights with existing microbes. Some of you may know of MRSA, a “multiply-resistant” form of Staphylococcus Aureus, a bacteria commonly found on your skin. This bacteria is available in many forms, one of which is the infamous “flesh eating” bacteria. There are also several strains of E. coli that are dangerous – even lethal. And some of these are resistant as well.
For those unfamiliar with the term “resistant”, that implies resistance to our antibiotics. Antibiotics are the weapons we use in our ongoing war with microbes. They’re the bullets your doctor uses to shoot the bad guys when the bad guys attack you. For instance, when you get pneumonia, chances are your doctor will prescribe something like streptomycin (btw – “mycin” indicates the antibiotic is a derivative of a fungus, which is where most of our antibiotics come from; fungus have been fighting bacteria for a long freaking time, and have developed a hefty arsenal). Bacteria get killed by these chemicals in large quantities. However, the bullets aren’t perfect, and sometimes the bacteria have the microbial version of body armor. Some bacteria will inevitably survive exposure to the antibiotics.
But here’s where the real kicker shows up – the ones that survive are the tough ones. And since the weak ones are dead and get swept away, that leaves a lot of room for the tough ones to breed. So you hit them again before they get the chance to do that. This is why it is really important for you to finish any course of antibiotics that your doctor gives you. You can’t just take pills until the sick symptoms go away – if you stop, you’re leaving behind the tough bacteria. You finish the course to further weaken the remaining bacteria, kill what you can. Your body also works against them, and if they’re weakened by antibiotics, your body has a much easier time defeating them. So chances are, you’ll eliminate the infection completely. But if you stop halfway, you might stop being sick, but you’ll leave a population of toughened bacteria behind.
This is one of the reasons I tell everyone I know to never use “antibacterial” soaps and cleaners. The reason? When you wipe down a counter with an antibacterial, then you kill probably 99.9% of the bacteria on the surface. That 0.1% remainder can re-populate the surface in 24 hours. And what’s more, the entire population will be descendants of the bacteria with the highest resistance to that antibacterial agent. Repeated cleanings with the same material repeat this cycle. At the end of the bottle, you’ve created a false sense of confidence for yourself, and a practically immune population of bacteria for your countertop.
What’s more, bacteria share genes among themselves. Even different species of bacteria do this. When they bump into each other, they have a tendency to form little tubules that connect their cells, and genes are passed between them on little chunks of DNA called plasmids. Think of it as something like an early version of sex mixed with a game of telephone with cans and strings. Different species have been observed to trade genes for antibiotic resistance among themselves.
Now, let’s change the subject to livestock. Chickens, pigs, cows, etc. Farmers discovered long ago that giving livestock antibiotics in small doses as part of their regular feed makes for larger, healthier animals – in other words, that treatment translates into real dollars and cents when the time comes to sell the meat and other products derived from the livestock. This has been going on for decades. Something like 29 million pounds of antibiotics are consumed by America’s livestock annually.
These animals are given a steady stream of diluted antibiotics. These animals live in extremely close proximity to one another. Each one of them is, to put it mildly hardly a sterile environment. Cases of resistant Staph, E. coli, and even Salmonella have been documented numerous times at a host of different farms. A friend of mine, who might be reading this right now, twenty years ago became something of an expert at the disposal methods for pig shit (the term used then was “Swine Waste Management”), and can attest to the enormous lagoons of liquefied feces that comprise the waste dumps for pig farms. Chicken poop and cow poop meet different fates, but the animals in question are generally exposed – and exposed liberally – to the output of one another’s GI tract on a daily, if not hourly, basis.
And those wastes contain large quantities of resistant strains of bacteria.
So – when you hear about a spill in North Carolina where a lagoon of pig waste broke its levee and spilled an absolutely obscene quantity of pig crap into a local river, you’re looking at an accident that doesn’t just have disgusting implications. You’re looking at a severely dangerous biohazard. One that has enormous health consequences.
But those spills don’t occur often, and are easy enough to avoid, right?
Allow me to present to you the common housefly. The housefly, whose wriggling children grow in those very lagoons, waste pits, and cisterns of resistant bacteria, maturing into winged adults in a shockingly fast period. Who eat, walk in, and vomit that slurry of unmentionables – often on the food you are about to eat, yourself.
And in whose gut can be found these resistant bacteria.
The housefly can cover five miles in a day, easily. And it can hitch a ride in a vehicle just as easily as a human can. The housefly buzzing around you may very easily have come from a very distant location.
A resistant strain of bacteria does not have to cause illness immediately. A person may be colonized by a strain for years before any infection occurs – remember, Staphylococcus lives naturally on human skin. A person is likely to never even know they are carrying these bacteria. Until they get scratched, or cut, or have an accident, or even go in to the doctor for surgery. Then, when the skin is open, the bacteria get in – and the weapons we’ve spent battling the bugs for decades will turn out to be useless.
What’s the point of all this, you ask? Kill more houseflies? Yes, kill them if you can and will.
More importantly – be aware of what we created. We. In our desire for more and cheaper foodstuffs, we are incurring a heavy, heavy price, one that will very likely be paid by our kids in a far more dangerous environment.
We can stop this, but we have to be willing to pay a little more for our food. Outlawing the use of antibiotics on animals that are not sick would be a great start. Breaking up the big industrial-farming operations in favor of smaller, free-range farms would be another good step. Cooking the food you buy thoroughly is probably the most proactive measure you can take. Most of all though, is simple awareness: awareness of the food you are about to put in your mouth, awareness of the industry that produces it, and awareness of the habits of microbes.