The Coming Plague

A growing problem of potentially devastating proportions
From the January 2000 Trumpet Print Edition

JoAnn Burkholder went to the lab as she had so many mornings before. Little did she know this time it would be very different. Burkholder, a research scientist at North Carolina State University, had recently discovered the algae-like parasite responsible for killing millions of fish in North Carolina’s estuaries. As she worked over the tank of dying fish, the fumes began to cause her thinking and motor skills to diminish.

Unaware of her sluggishness, she worked four more hours until, barely able to walk, her colleagues almost had to carry her from the lab. The scientist had inadvertently exposed herself to Pfiesteria, the name she had given to the parasite that caused her illness. She suffered stomach cramps, labored breathing and acute short-term memory loss for eight days before recovering somewhat. Since then she has been hospitalized with pneumonia eight times, and cannot exercise without triggering some sort of respiratory illness. Two other researchers working on the case suffered similar symptoms.

Pfiesteria has such an ability to attack the human immune system that it has been given the name “the cell from hell.” It is just one of many new strains of super bugs that has the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization worried about what humanity fears the most: an uncontrolled disease outbreak commonly referred to as “the plague.”

One episode of a modern-day plague occurred in 1918, as an outbreak of a strange influenza virus killed more than 20 million people worldwide. It wasn’t until 1997 that it was revealed as a unique virus, though closely related to “swine flu.”

When a pandemic (an epidemic which affects a large area) occurs, it is without doubt among the most devastating of all human experiences. Entire families and even whole communities can be erased within a few short weeks.

In New York City, health professionals have been fighting a mutant strain of a resistant form of tuberculosis. To make matters worse, there appear to be several different strains erupting that are resistant to all known drugs. Tuberculosis, in its third stage of development, is highly contagious and can be passed by a simple sneeze. Worldwide, 3 million people died of it in 1996. In Africa, it’s malaria. In South America, it’s dengue hemorrhagic fever. In Pakistan, it’s congo virus. In all of these places, modern drugs are coming up short as killer pathogens find ways to adapt.

The death rate from hepatitis C is expected to triple within 20 years. That’s because there is a “large reservoir of people with chronic infection,” according to D.W. Powell of the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. Hepatitis C invites other health problems such as liver cancer. Currently, the microbe that causes hepatitis is finding ways to resist most attempts to eliminate it.

The human body is one of the most perfectly designed forms in all creation. We were created with an

immune system so powerful, it is fully capable of defeating any disease-causing organism that invades our body. Yet we live in an age of super bugs and strange diseases brought on by an excessive lifestyle and by the very drugs used to eradicate them.

With over 100 million Americans suffering from chronic forms of illnesses all attributable to having low immune systems, we must be doing something wrong.

The first high-profile warning that infectious disease had not disappeared as a health threat came in 1976 with the sudden outbreak of legionnaire’s disease, an often fatal infection caused by a heretofore unknown bacterium. For the next 15 years, health authorities gradually were forced to direct their

attention to newly emerging diseases. Finally, as the ’80s drew to a close, the dire realization began to grow that antibiotics, mankind’s most powerful weapons against infection, were swiftly becoming impotent.

The statistics tell the story. In 1988, infectious disease did not even make the top ten list of causes of death in the U.S., whereas in 1995 infectious disease was the third leading cause of death—and climbing.

In his book The Antibiotic Paradox, Dr. Stuart Levy, a world-renowned authority on antibiotic use and resistance, explains the mechanism of the development of antibiotic resistance. Within any colony of bacteria, there are individual characteristics, just as there are differences within a population of human beings. These differences can cause individual bacteria within a colony to be relatively “weak” or “strong” with respect to the action of the antibiotic. Whenever that antibiotic is given, the weaker bacteria will be killed, but the strong members of the colony will survive. Then, those surviving bacteria, now provided with an abundant food supply and living space, will repopulate the colonized area with bacterial organisms which now have a greater resistance to the antibiotic than the previous colony.

Notice this report written in 1996: “Declaring a global crisis and warning that no country is safe from infectious diseases, the World Health Organization says in a new report that diseases such as aids, ebola, hanta, mad cow, tuberculosis, etc., killed more than 17 million people worldwide last year, including 9 million children….

“Taken together, bacterial, viral and parasitic diseases remain the world’s leading cause of premature death, accounting for one out of every three deaths, the report says. For instance, the number-one infectious disease, tuberculosis, took 3.1 million lives last year, up 400,000 from World Health Organization figures for 1993.” Among the reasons that many infectious diseases are spreading so rapidly, the who report says, are growing antibiotic resistance and heavy international air travel.

The abuse and overuse of antibiotics has produced another nasty side effect—the destruction of the beneficial flora in the human intestine. According to scientists, the normal human intestinal tract contains approximately 100,000 trillion bacterial cells, containing as many as 400 different species. These bacteria perform many useful functions in the body, especially that of forming a competitive barrier to infective organisms. This intestinal barrier plays an extremely important role in the ability of the body to ward off infection. Its depleted state in many individuals leaves the body even more vulnerable at a time when the worldwide threat of infection is mounting.

Instead of erasing the threat of infectious disease, we are faced with the likelihood (some authorities feel that it is a certainty) of unprecedented epidemics, of diseases which we have no effective means to combat. In the words of Mitchell Cohen, director of the division of fungal and bacterial infections of the National Center for Infectious Diseases, “We are going back to a pre-antibiotic era.”

As Laurie Garrett wrote in her book, The Coming Plague, “In the end, it seems that American journalist I.F. Stone was right when he said, ‘Either we learn to live together or we die together.’ While the human race battles itself, fighting over ever more crowded turf and scarcer resources, the advantage moves to the microbes’ court. They are our predators, and they will be victorious if we, Homo sapiens, do not learn how to live in a rational global village that affords the microbes few opportunities. It’s either that or we brace ourselves for the coming plague.”