It causes about 90,000 American fatalities every year – mostly older people and kids. That is more than the yearly number of automobile fatalities. More than all of the nation’s homicides, including NYC. It’s more than the auto deaths and homicides combined. It’s 50% more than the total American loss of life in the entire 10 years of war in Vietnam. And at our present rate of casualties in Iraq, it would take a century to match just one year of this scourge.
It’s killing somebody every 6 minutes. Day in, day out, around the clock. And the worse is yet to come because the rate is increasing dramatically.
Have you guessed what I’m talking about? Nope, not predictions for bird flu. Not the nuclear winter. Not lead-laced toys from China. Not grease from McDonald’s.
Drug resistant bacteria.
Those are figures published in a recent article by Jessica Snyder Sachs in the March Discover Magazine. Link
The culprit we hear most about is methicillin-resistant Staph A, a nasty bug that is alone responsible for 18,000 deaths a year. More than AIDS. MRSA is just the tip of the iceberg.
But it is not the numbers in Sachs’ article that are most shocking, it is the science. Although I have gotten away from hard-core biological sciences, I was a student and teacher in the medical sciences for more than 20 years. Being an academic, I naturally assumed I had heard it all, but I wasn’t prepared for this. I well knew, for instance, that many types of bacteria are able to exchange their DNA in a sort of micro-sex. But I was always taught that these trysts occur just within a species. I had no idea that entirely different types of bacteria are capable of exchanging genes with each other. It’s like a chicken swapping DNA with a bull frog. Nor did I realize how long DNA persists in nature, or that bacteria are capable of scavenging genes that are just lying around, for instance genes released in BS when other bacteria are killed during treatment.
Of course, BS from city treatment works contains sewage from hospitals, where drug-resistant microbes are produced and excreted by the buckets full. Treating the sewage means that you kill a large portion, but not all, of the microbes. Those you do kill release their durg-resistance genes; those you don’t kill take those genes up. Then you spread it all on the ground where the naked DNA and/or now-modified bacteria attach to the plants growing in the BS. It gets eaten by livestock and wild animals and gets incorporated into their intestinal flora, where it reproduces like gang-busters and then spreads yeah-long distances from the fields.
According to Sachs, the drug-resistance DNA is being found everywhere. It is found in the ground water. It is turning up in streams. It is found up our kids noses and down their throats in alarming levels. I’ll bet donuts to dollars that someday soon some DNA jock will be able to track drug-resistant strains of bacteria found in ground water, rivers, or children of rural Virginia back to NYC, DC, or Newark.
We’re generating a perfect microbiological storm here.
[For the life of me, this is one deplorable situation I cannot find a way to pin on Bush, Cheney, or Rove. I know there must be a connection. I just can’t find it.]
Thank you, Moira Bell of Bedford for passing the Discover article around.