Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Trend for 2012: Disease makes a comeback

Trend for 2012: Disease makes a comeback.

All sorts of stories have been cropping up lately about new diseases emerging, from viruses to bacteria. Just before the new year, I wrote this post: The bugs are back. The trend seems to be accelerating and getting little notice. Right now it's just isolated stories, but I think it won't be long before people start to notice a trend.

A couple days ago, Lloyd Alter wrote:

Hospitals have a big problem, a bacterium known as Clostridium difficile. It has thrived in hospitals because it is resistant to many of the antibiotics we are so busy feeding to cows and pigs, let alone human beings who are sick and old in hospitals. It is often spread by medical staff who don't wash their hands, but a new study shows that it may be spread by flushing toilets.

Treehugger's Sara Novak wrote in August about a bacterial outbreak in ground turkey:

Years ago when salmonella scares surfaced the mere idea of them sent waves of fear into the heart of us. But today these scares have gone a step further into drug resistant territory. The latest in a growing trend of drug resistant outbreaks is tied to ground turkey and as a result, 36 million pounds of Cargill turkey products have been recalled. The Centers for Disease Control said that Salmonella Heidelberg, as it's named, has shown resistance to multiple antibiotic treatments. Thus far, 77 are sick and 1 dead from this antibiotic resistant form of salmonella. The sickness has spread across numerous states including California, Michigan, Ohio, Texas, Illinois, and Pennsylvania, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Meanwhile, at Wal-Mart:

LEBANON, Mo. (AP) — Wal-Mart has pulled a batch of powdered infant formula from more than 3,000 of its stores nationwide after a newborn Missouri boy who was given the formula became gravely ill with a suspected bacterial infection and died after being taken off life support, the retailer said Wednesday. No government recall had been ordered for the 12.5-ounce cans of Enfamil Newborn powder with the lot number ZP1K7G. Manufacturer Mead Johnson Nutrition said its records showed the lot tested negative for the bacterium before it was shipped.

Last month two people died from using neti pots with contaminated water:

Louisiana health regulators warned residents Tuesday about the dangers of using neti pots improperly. A neti pot, which looks like a genie's lamp, is commonly used to irrigate sinuses. The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals issued its warning following a second death this year caused by Naegleria fowleri, the so-called brain-eating amoeba.

A 51-year-old DeSoto Parish woman died after using tap water in a neti pot to irrigate her sinuses and became infected by the deadly amoeba, which entered the body through her nose. In June, a 20-year-old St. Bernard Parish man died under the same circumstances.

Over the New Year's holiday, I heard this story on the BBC:

Health authorities in Australia are warning of a possible outbreak of Murray Valley encephalitis, a rare but potentially deadly disease. The mosquito-borne disease has recently been found in chickens in Australia's most populous state, New South Wales. Humans can also be infected. While many patients show only mild symptoms, some may suffer long-term neurological problems or even die. The last outbreak of Murray Valley encephalitis was in the 1970s

And just today, I see this on the BBC:

Hong Kong's brand-new government headquarters compound is contaminated with bacteria that cause Legionnaires' disease, officials have confirmed. Health officials conducted an investigation after a minister was hospitalised with the potentially fatal disease last month. Traces of the bacteria were found to be up to 14 times above acceptable levels.

Also last month in Hong Kong, a reminder that bird flu is still around:

On Tuesday, a dead Oriental magpie found at a secondary school tested positive for bird flu. Another secondary school closed for a day for disinfection last Friday after a dead black-headed gull was found with the virus. Hong Kong is quick to take action against infectious diseases after an outbreak of the deadly respiratory disease SARS in 2003 killed 300 people in the city and a further 500 worldwide. In 2009, 300 people were placed under quarantine at a Hong Kong hotel after a guest contracted swine flu.

And see the related stories to the side about scarlet fever outbreaks in Hong Kong, and legionella bacteria on train toilet systems in Scotland! Project censored picked superbug resistance as one of its top stories (one I covered previously):

Lethal superbugs that do not respond to any known drugs are emerging. The World Health Organization states that the New Delhi, or NDM-1, superbug was recently found in UK patients who had traveled to countries such as India or Pakistan and has reached a critical point. These superbugs are resistant to carbapenem antibiotics, a major concern to experts because this type of antibiotic is used to treat infections that evade other drugs.

Already 25,000 people in Europe die each year from superbugs and there are a number of other bacteria that are also now resistant to all known drugs. That figure will increase to even greater numbers unless new, more powerful antibiotics are developed.

They also picked the spread of Lyme Disease as another underreported story:

Lyme disease is one of the most political and controversial epidemics of our time. The disease originates from a bacteria transmitted through the bite of a tick and can remain hidden, mimicking other diseases such as Multiple Sclerosis, ALS, ADHD and other neurological conditions, thus it is often called “the great imitator”. And it is growing – new cases of Lyme occur each year at a rate ten times higher than that of AIDS and the West Nile Virus combined.

Can we not spot a trend?

It seems like every day there is a story about some new outbreak or resistant strain. It seems our food is getting less and less safe. And one can imagine reports of the trend being covered up to not cause panic or hurt the economy. We need to have faith that the products we buy won't kill us for the economy to function, and I'm not convinced such a guarantee exists. As the system gets more complex, these sorts of things are becoming endemic.

So I guess this will be my first prediction for 2012: This will be the year when we become aware that were not as invulnerable to sickness and disease as we once thought. We're taking our first tentative steps into a post-antibiotic society.

An Explanation of How Avian Flu Spreads (New York Times)