Why Are We So Bent Over Bird Flu?
This quarter I have my chemistry students doing oral presentations. I do this for a number of reasons, to wit: 1. It's good practice for them, though many don't appreciate this at this point in their lives. 2. It breaks the routine for the kids in general. 3. It provides a grade buffer, i.e.
they get to do something definitely more left-brained focus in a class that's decidedly right-braincentric. My only requirement for the presentation is that they focus on a science specific topic, it doesn't have to be about chemistry, they can choose literally from the entire panoply of science related topics that you find out there. It's interesting to see what they'll get up to talk about, but one of the more popular and persistent topics is bird flu. It's very clear that bird flu is on the minds of the average teenager in America, and there's no small measure of fear associated with this. What gets me is how this has turned into something to be fearful of when it's killed less than 500 people so far. This is due in no small part to the media reporting on this regularly of late, and what becomes readily apparent is that the media fuels this fear without the least bit of concern regarding whether it really knows what it's talking about, or whether it's really giving the right focus on the right topic, vice the one that plays to the crowd, like Bush's new flu initiative ... oppps, I'm getting ahead of myself here.
Ok, maybe there can be a pandemic, we'll have bird flu sweeping across continents and millions will die. But it seems more and more likely that this is not the likely scenario that we can expect to unfold here. No, it seems that the genetic make up of this particular flu is quite a bit different from the variety that did a number, to the tune of between 25 and 50 million people (500,000 here in the U.S.) on the planet back in 1918, and it's not likely that this flu will become a virulent viral wildfire. Oh well ... but The Economist, where I stole the above picture from, writes about something we should be bent about in The struggle against superbugs. Here we meet MSRA, or methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus which is the antibiotic resistant staphylococcus bacteria which lurks in the inner, and apparently a few of the outer recesses of America's hospitals. Every year some 2 million folks are infected with this lovely example of evolutionary efficiency, and of that number about 90,000 a year die. Yep, that's 90,000 - multiply that by 5.5 years and you almost, not quite, beat out the 1918 pandemic. There are two reasons for this, one mundane and infuriating, the other an unfortunate byproduct of our capitalist way of life in this country, though if there were a $1 billion infusion into this problem, with $7 billion long-term as Bush proposes for bird flu vaccines, well I think we'd have this one licked. Here we go with the reasons:
1. American hospitals are piss-poor at monitoring for the bug and strictly enforcing precautions against it. It turns out that not ALL hospitals have this problem, our friends in Finland, Denmark, and the Netherlands have much lower incidences of infection because they take this issue seriously. It's not that the bug evolves any less virulently in those countries, it's just as nasty there as it is here, but there they take it seriously. What's the main deterrent against MSRA? Scrupulous hygiene - "Gee doc, did you wash those hands after you used the toilet?" Why don't we ever see signs in hospital restrooms admonishing the staff to wash their hands after every use? Hmmmmm ... well, they're mostly college graduates so we likely assume that they don't need reminding, in spite of the fact that they'll more likely be responsible for killing someone than the guy who handled my chef salad; go figure.
2. Drug companies aren't hot on creating new antibiotics, mostly because the big money is in long-term drugs like those for high blood pressure, heart disease, AIDs, etc. The money just isn't in few shot Charlie antibiotics. Of the 506 drugs in development last year only 5 were new antibiotics, in spite of the fact that there are more and more bugs out there that simply aren't
responding to the antibiotics we now have. Ok, the logic of the market dictates what drug companies will do, I understand that, but shouldn't 90,000 people cause someone to go, "Whoooooooooa, we have a problem here, and bird flu ain't it!"? I guess not.
It amazes me, really it does. So many of us are all gaga over bird flu, scrambling with some huge money to do something about being prepared for it, yet right now if you went to the hospital to have a hang nail removed you could die from MSRA, or maybe some other interesting little microbial agent of death and bodily destruction, all because we can't quite seem to get our priorities straight, and we can't get medical establishments and those working in them to take this stuff serious. Sometimes you just gotta love it ...