Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Viral Staircase

Published originally in 1995 in Columbus Alive! newspaper. This was the first article I wrote professionally and the first to be nationally syndicated.

Headlines scream the end of the world: Flesh-eating bacteria. Salmonella poisoning from homemade ice cream, raw eggs, cheese and undercooked meat.

Diseases once conquered are reappearing. They are resistant to the antibiotics and drugs created to protect us and our families.

In every headline is a germ of truth. Hundreds of thousands are dying. They are the very old, the very young, the sick, and the frail, those already grappling with other diseases and a growing population of millions whose immune systems are faltering. These are the ones who've always died from plague, pox and disease since the beginning of time.

We conquered tuberculosis, plague, smallpox, and childhood diseases-we thought.  Why are they coming back?

Cleanliness may be next to godliness but it can also lead to extinction, it appears. Cleanliness and the use of antibiotics and vaccines have combined possibly to change the course of human evolution.

We have massacred hundreds of billions of microbes, viruses and bacteria with antibiotics. A fever remained, evolved and came back in concentrated forms, creating a new, mutant, antibiotic-resistant monster refusing to succumb to our best efforts and obsession with cleanliness. Like Victor Frankenstein we created a creature bent on destruction.

Dr. Calvin Kunin, professor of medicine at the Ohio State University, compares the emergency of drug-resistant microbes to Darwinian evolution-survival of the fittest. "We are seeing accelerated evolution before our eyes," said Kunin, who is chairman of the Infectious Disease Society of America's committee on antibiotics.

Throughout our lives we encounter bacteria and viruses on virtually everything we touch, taste and smell. Most are harmless. They help tip off our immune systems  to potential danger, responding by marking and attacking invaders.

Bacteria have their benefits. "They manufacture nutrients-biotin, pantothenic acid, pyridoxine, vitamin B12-stimulate the immune system to recognize threatening microbes, and stake out a territory that might otherwise be occupied by pathogenic [disease-causing] organisms," says holly Ahem, a microbiologist at the State University of New York at Albany.

Ricki Lewis, science writer, in September 1992s's FDA Consumer, explained that "[Microbes are] found in predictable places where bends in the body create warm, moist pockets, and where the body is exposed to the outside. [They] inhabit our armpits and groins, our eyes and ears, the entrances to our respiratory tracts, and the exits from our urinary tracts ... [and] our colons. ...From between our fingers to between our toes, many microbes call the healthy human body home."

We are host to trillions of bacteria. At birth we pick up hitchhiking bacteria in the birth canal. Lewis tells how "within 12 hours, several species [of bacterial life] are present in the intestinal tract, transferred from the mother, from food, and from the baby's fist to his mouth."

Although not necessarily dangerous, the teeming microscopic life forms help to stimulate the baby's immune system.

Immunologist suspect a parent's instinctive kissing and nuzzling introduce bacteria that serve to kick the body's natural defenses into high gear. Without that initial introduction our bodies would be unable to fight against the simplest infections and we would die-or be confined to a plastic, germ-free bubble.

The bugs normally within us are kept from multiplying to infective levels. "These organisms are confined to an area that is theoretically outside the body (because they exit directly to the outside)," says Charles Schable, chief to he Diagnostic Serology Section, division HIV/AIDS at the national Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia.

Before Lister pioneered sanitary, hygienic conditions in hospitals and operating theaters, before Pasteur created his rabies vaccine, before modern science created antibiotics and changed the world, humans adapted to virulent diseases alone.

According to historians, in the past plagues efficiently controlled population growth, without respect to money, influence, position, or power. They treat all equally, cutting the frail and weak from the human herd, leaving only the strong to survive and pass their enhanced immune systems on to their children.

Christopher Columbus carried smallpox across the Atlantic Ocean to unsuspecting natives, where the population couldn't fight off plagues and childhood diseases commonplace to Europeans who had adapted over time and were largely resistant. Adventuring European sailors seeking wealth and spreading death mingled freely with the natives, unmindful of their recent illnesses, and sowed the seeds of destruction.

Each European incursion brought religion, confining clothing and more disease. The natives had no resistance to the new diseases and millions succumbed before their immune systems could fight back.

In the Pacific, centuries later, the guileless Polynesians welcomed near- extinction with open arms. Measles, an inconvenient childhood illness in the Old World ravaged the islands of the New World. The islanders were unprepared. They had no immunological resistance to their visits' average diseases. Missionaries wrote in reports and diaries how Polynesians threw themselves into the surf to cool their fevers, jumped off cliffs onto the rocks, and hung themselves to relieve their suffering, leaving a mere one-third of the original population to carry on.

Since those first dire days, Indians and Polynesians have built up immunities to those catastrophic illnesses. They have adapted. Their bodies now contain minute traces of the bacteria that drove them to the verge of extinction, according to  the immunologists and biologists at the CDC. Future generations have been endowed with the ruin of the past.

In the early 20th century a new twist on conquering disease occurred with the discovery of antibiotics. No longer satisfied with vaccinations of weakened strains of infectious diseases, we set our sights on total annihilation.

Medicine forced nature to retaliate and preserve the status quo. Undaunted, scientists looked for other avenues and have found a potential answer among cockroaches, generally considered one of the lowest forms of life.

Dr. Richard Karp, University of Cincinnati professor of biological sciences explains, "When you're dealing with roaches, which can live up to four years, what really gets extended is its adult life. A roach is more like a higher animal that wants a little quality of life during its long adult phase."

To combat incursions of insects and bacteria in the past, we salted, pickled, dried and froze our food before cooking. Now we eat fresher, centrally processed produce and meats that contain hardier strains of Salmonella and E. coli, in addition to insect infestations.

Eggs sunny-side up, raw eggs, undercooked and barely cooked eggs once stirred out palates; now they prompt our digestion to revolt. Cheese, teeming with bacterial colonies, veined and aged to perfection, graced our tables with color and rich flavor; now they color our insides with infection. Homemade ice cream, hand cranked on the back porch on lazy summer evenings, a treat anticipated and cheered is now barely tasted. Even salad bars with their bright display of color and texture, must beviewed with concern; you never know who has touched it or how clean they were.

Not so many years ago, before the Food and Drug Administration raised its standards, higher contents of rodent hairs, droppings and filth found their way into our processed foods. FDA inspectors tell how English and European exports are required to scrutinize food sent to America with stricter standards than those reserved for their own consumers.

Just a century ago, most food was grown at home or purchased from local farmers. It was hastily washed and processed and few people felt any ill effects. Then scientists, government officials and doctors tampered with the prevailing conditions in the name of better health, all to help us live longer. Manufacturers followed suit by convincing consumers that cleaning their homes, food, utensils and bodies wasn't enough. We must sanitize, purify, deodorize and disinfect everything. Pictures of teeming microscopic germs are 9% exterminated before their eyes.

Madison Avenue cranks out billions of dollars worth of ads to promote continued health and safety from germs. Not satisfied with using the same dishcloth or sponge or dish mop over and over again, products are used once and thrown away. Terry cloth towels hanging in the kitchen or bathroom are thrown out in favor of sanitary disposable towels. Cloths are sanitized, not just washed.

The national Centers for Disease Control reports that "From 1976 through 1991, the proportion of reported Salmonella isolates in the United States that were SE [Salmonella enteritidis, which causes severe, bloody diarrhea] increased from 5 percent to 20 percent...and to 21 percent for the first half of 1993."  All from food prepared in our homes.

Authors Marguerite Neill, Michael Osterholm and David Swerdlow reported in the July 1994 issue of Patient Care magazine, "Centralized processing of food increases the potential for widespread contamination...[and m]any consumers are not experienced in the proper handling and preparation of food...more of their meals are prepared by other who may be careless."

To combat the fear of contamination, corporations manufacture antibacterial sprays, lotions and powders for kitchen counters, appliances and food preparer hygiene. Hands are purified with antibacterial soap. Pani-inducing tabloids and national newspaper headlines report our homes are no longer safe until they're sterilized and germ-free.

Where will it all end? Can we live germ-free forever?

The Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) from 1991 to the present has documented cases of viruses jumping from apes, horses and dogs to humans and causing severe illness and death. A new strain of pneumonia or localized infection of soft tissues has been documented as transferring from horse to human, and an illness  similar to Rocky Mountain spotted fever has jumped over from man's best friend, according to JAMA.

HIV, AIDS, and other previously unknown diseases such as Ebola fever, which is more than 97% fatal, baffle medical science. There is no cure. Killer viruses and bacteria, unfazed by antiseptic conditions, adapt faster than they can be documented, classified, studied, decontaminated and killed.

From Africa, birthplace of the AIDS virus, come whispering reports of prostitutes, and a scattering of anonymous people, resistant to infection - without the intervention of science or medicine. They are adapting - alone - in the questionable cleanliness of the Dark Continent's rural communities.


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