Thursday, May 26, 2016

Killer Micro-Terrorists

Terrorists threaten to bomb, slice and shoot those who oppose them, hacking into their cyber-systems to disrupt the societies they challenge, recruiting disenfranchised citizens of offending nations to join in the kill and inflict disruption and doubt as widely as possible. The suspicions surrounding the very recent crash of EgyptAir flight MS804, killing 66 people on a routine commercial flight between Paris and Cairo, exemplifies the tensions that hover above all of us. Americans list terrorism and cyberattacks as their two greatest fears. But there may be another set of terrorists growing in numbers and power. Tiny but devastating.
When the Ebola virus slammed into Western African countries. In Sierra Leone, 3,590 people died and thousands of others were impaired for life. The pattern was repeated in surrounding countries, with experts noting that Ebola could have easily been contained if major research institutions, primarily in the United States, had simply continued their existing work to the next level. But government funding for such research has been plummeting for years. So we didn’t until it was too late. And while some of us may have snarled, “It’s their problem, those unsanitary primitives, and it isn’t relevant to here,” think again. Remember the avian flues of the past? SARS? Germs travel in a globally-linked world. Germs also evolve to survive treatments targeted against them (see below).
With global climate change, disease patterns and their carriers (mosquitos, birds, animals… and infected travelers) are spreading faster than ever. Third world infections, from dengue fever and the Zika virus, have made their way into the U.S. Especially susceptible: the southern reaches of our own shores, particularly in states where hot humidity (and getting hotter) prevails. As that heat and humidity continues to move north, so will the carriers and their diseases. And these areas are woefully under-prepared for that reality. Further, while these effects may be less visible, these new spreading diseases also seriously threaten our food supply, from plants to fish to livestock.
Congress, pressing its blind austerity priorities that have slammed education, infrastructure and research while pressing military expenditures to the fore (we spend 41% of this planet’s aggregated military budgets), is currently debating funding for a major assault on the Zika virus. The president has requested $1.9 billion, the House has offered $692 million and the Senate believes $1.1 billion is more appropriate. If Zika explodes into the United States and we are not prepared… well, a lot of folks will suffer lifelong impairments and increased mortality rates. The summer Olympics in Brazil may have the lowest attendance in the modern history of the games because of the outbreak of this disease, which causes microcephaly (small-brained babies) and additional brain damage in adults. But wait, there’s more!
Our overuse and incorrect usages of treatments, particularly antibiotics, have produced new and ever-evolving germs that have become totally or partially resistant to known medicines designed to treat the diseases they cause. For example, antibiotics, focused on eradication of nasty bacteria, are everywhere. The medical profession has joined with agribusiness to push easy antibiotic “solutions” to these bacterial threats. Livestock feed is often laced with preventative antibiotics (which find their way into human bodies), just as doctors tend to over-prescribe antibiotics for relatively minor ailments.
Some physicians are simply insuring against potential malpractice claims, while others make the call “just in case.” Patients exacerbate the problem, even when antibiotics are properly required, by not finishing the full trace of their prescriptions (because they feel better), allowing too many bacteria to survive with a newfound ability to live after the treatment.
We call these resistant germs “superbugs.” “Superbugs will kill someone every three seconds by 2050 unless the world acts now, a hugely influential report says [Review on Antimicrobial Resistance from the World Health Organization]. The global review sets out a plan for preventing medicine ‘being cast back into the dark ages’ that requires billions of dollars of investment… It also calls for a revolution in the way antibiotics are used and a massive campaign to educate people.
“The report has received a mixed response with some concerned that it does not go far enough… The battle against infections that are resistant to drugs is one the world is losing rapidly and has been described as ‘as big a risk as terrorism.’… The problem is that we are simply not developing enough new antibiotics and we are wasting the ones we have.
“Since the Review on Antimicrobial Resistance started in mid-2014, more than one million people have died from such infections… And in that time doctors also discovered bacteria that can shrug off the drug of last resort - colistin - leading to warnings that the world was teetering on the cusp of a ‘post-antibiotic era.
“The review says the situation will get only worse with 10 million people predicted to die every year from resistant infections by 2050… The analysis was based on scenarios modelled by researchers Rand Europe and auditors KPMG… They found that drug resistant E. coli, malaria and tuberculosis (TB) would have the biggest impact.”, May 19th. The 2050 projected impacts of microbial fatalities are illustrated in the above chart, which it doesn’t provide numbers for those who do not die, but suffer greatly and carry resulting disabilities for the rest of their lives.
And no, this is not a problem relegated to the future that does not merit immediate focus. The above projection is based on an accelerating death rate, already very much in progress. We can slide towards a closing with this alarming report from the May 26thWashington Post: “For the first time, researchers have found a person in the United States carrying a bacteria resistant to antibiotics of last resort, an alarming development that the top U.S. public health official says could mean ‘the end of the road’ for antibiotics.
“The antibiotic-resistant strain was found [in April] in the urine of a 49-year-old Pennsylvania woman. Department of Defense researchers determined that carried a strain of E. coli resistant to the antibiotic colistin, according to a study published [May 26th] in Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, a publication of the American Society for Microbiology. The authors wrote that the discovery ‘heralds the emergence of a truly pan-drug resistant bacteria.’
“Colistin is the antibiotic of last resort for particularly dangerous types of superbugs, including a family of bacteria known as CRE, which health officials have dubbed ‘nightmare bacteria.’ In some instances, these superbugs kill up to 50 percent of patients who become infected. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has called CRE among the country's most urgent public health threats.” The nightmare has begun.
We can fund the required research, begin containing the misuse of medical treatments and understand the likely migration of disease patterns and germ-resistance-evolution based on climate change as well as normal infection patterns. Or lots of us will suffer… and die… unnecessarily.
I’m Peter Dekom, and, unless changed, the growing anti-science bias in too many Americans, the failure to understand the true governmental priorities and act on them, will inflict reams of unnecessary pain, suffering and premature death on so many of us.

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