The War On Bugs

Spotted this week on the BBC News website:

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It’s not a bad idea. It’s just a 15-years-too-late idea.

(I’ve been saying.)

Big bug

There’s a 28 metre long Escherichia coli in Sheffield city centre at the moment:

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But don’t worry, it’s not going to infect you. It’s there to promote krebsfest – a celebration of all things Sir Hans Krebs.
I can’t get excited; that man ruined Biochemistry 101 for me and everyone else who wasn’t weird.

Snakes on a beach…

Well – Snake on a beach anyway. This photo was taken this morning by ‘jogger’ Janice Wagner on Hout Bay beach (the same one you can see – sans serpent – here). It’s a Cape Cobra (Naja nivea) and it was off out for a quick slither along the beach.

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Because of the nature of social media, this is already old news in Cape Town, but it’s worth recording on here for posterity and for our overseas visitors (none of whom will be sunbathing on this beach again any time soon, I guess).

It also raises the question ‘Just where are we safe now?’, what with sharks in the water and snakes on the sand. Although it’s worth noting that our friend above also went for a swim.

Are we now going to have to employ snake spotters as we do shark spotters?

And then there’s the E.coli, arguably slightly less dangerous than the sharks or the snake, but nevertheless still rather nasty. I hope Hissing Sid has taken his antibiotics…

UPDATE: More info here.

Was the E.coli outbreak started deliberately?

Was the E.coli outbreak started deliberately? In a word, no.

But that hasn’t stopped the conspiracy theorists theorising in a conspiracic manner. In particular, Mike Adams, aka “the Health Ranger” and Editor of NaturalNews.com.

The evidence now points to this deadly strain of e.coli [sic] being engineered and then either being released into the food supply or somehow escaping from a lab and entering the food supply inadvertently. If you disagree with that conclusion — and you’re certainly welcome to — then you are forced to conclude that this octobiotic superbug (immune to eight classes of antibiotics) developed randomly on its own… and that conclusion is far scarier than the “bioengineered” explanation because it means octobiotic superbugs can simply appear anywhere at any time without cause. That would be quite an exotic theory indeed.

My conclusion actually makes more sense: This strain of e.coli [sic] was almost certainly engineered and then released into the food supply for a specific purpose.

He even comes up with a new word “Octobiotic”  that when subjected to some basic etymology (literally “Eight living component of a community”) doesn’t actually mean what he probably wants it to mean. What a tosser.

Adams’ argument is that there is no way that this could have happened accidentally.

There’s really only one way this happens (and only one way) — you have to expose this strain of e.coli [sic] to all eight classes of antibiotics drugs.

So Adams reckons that there must have been some “dark forces” at work to genetically engineer such a resistant bacterial strain. Now I don’t want to get all technical on you here, but theoretically, it could be done by subjecting the bugs in question to an antibiotic (let’s call it antibiotic 1) and by using natural selection to naturally select the resistant bacteria – ie. the one that don’t die – you have bugs that are resistant to antibiotic 1.
Then you expose them to the next antibiotic (2) and take the ones that survive. These bugs are now resistant to antibiotics 1 and 2. Then you to expose to antibiotic 3 and… look you get the idea, I’m sure.

And yes, to the uneducated, (like Adams) perhaps it does sound like this could never have happened accidentally. But (sadly) that’s actually exactly what happens in hospitals every day.
And thus, hospitals are breeding grounds for superbugs. Something Mike Adams might have known if he’d only read this 2009 post entitled Hospitals Are Breeding Grounds for Superbugs by… er… Mike Adams, aka “the Health Ranger”:

On the pharmaceutical side, superbugs are also caused by the rampant abuse of antibiotics by doctors, who seem to prescribe them for everything under the sun –  including those things that are completely unaffected by antibiotics such as viral infections.

Oh dear.

But despite his own damning evidence against his own preposterous claim, Adams brings another gem to the precious stone party:

For example, if this bacteria originated in the food (as we’ve been told), then where did it acquire all this antibiotic resistance given the fact that antibiotics are not used in vegetables?

Well, that’s bullshit, Mike. Not just your idea, but the answer to your question as well. Antibiotics, given to cows, excreted in their faeces, which are then used to fertilise our salad crops.

All of which pours cold water on Adams’ theory that:

Nearly all the deaths now attributable to this e.coli [sic] outbreak are deaths of ignorance. But even more, they may also be deaths from a new era of food-based bioweapons unleashed by either a group of mad scientists or an agenda-driven institution that has declared war on the human population.

Ignorance. It kills. Something Mike Adams might want to consider before ever writing anything ever again.

This

I don’t usually think much of people who pass stuff on to me (through whatever medium) having simply added the word “This” to it, in order, I presume, to indicate their fervent support for the article or point in question.

However, I’m packed full of viruses at the moment and a one syllable post title suddenly seems highly appropriate to my stuffed up and slowed down brain.

So… “This”:

The outbreak of foodborne disease in Europe offers an interesting lesson in the psychology of risk perception. To be sure, the danger from this outbreak is real. It has killed 18 people so far and infected more than 2,000, hundreds of whom may suffer lifelong kidney damage. Cases have been recorded in 10 countries, but all were infected in northern Germany. In addition, this appears to be a new and more dangerous strain, a reminder of the constant battle medicine and public health must wage against the phenomenal ability of germs to mutate to resist our controls.

But the actual danger for any vegetable-eating European, even in Hamburg or other places where the cases have been concentrated, is low. Statistically. Scientifically. But then, we don’t just use scientific evidence or statistical probabilities to figure out what’s dangerous. Risk perception is a mix of facts and feelings, intellect and instinct, reason and gut reaction. And in many cases, the feelings/instinct/gut have the greater influence.

So says risk perception expert, David Ropeik.

And this stretches further than just a few cases of nasty E.coli in Germany. How about nuclear power – not actually that risky, but feared by millions? How about crime in South Africa – actually directly affecting very few, but affecting the perceptions of the entire nation?

And that’s wrong:

The problem is, as good a job as this instinctive system has done during human evolution, it can make mistakes. Dangerous mistakes. We can fear too much (vaccines), or too little (particulate pollution from coal-burning power plants), despite the available evidence, and our perceptions can create risks all by themselves. Excessive fear of vaccines is allowing diseases that had almost been eradicated to spread once more. Conversely, inadequate concern about coal-burning power stations has meant coal has been favoured over scarier nuclear power, risking sickness and death for thousands of people from particulate air pollution. Fukushima is now playing a powerful part in this retreat from nuclear power.

It’s an effect which is exacerbated these days by loose talk on social media and email; by the instant and ill-researched pieces in the media, where the motto now seems to be “get the story out first, make sure it’s factually correct later”. This plays into people’s fears and pushes individuals into making irrational, emotional decisions.
So, as Ropeik states in his concluding paragraph, it’s not your fault.:

I am not criticising people for being irrational about risk. Science has taught us just how inescapably instinctive and emotional the system is. But it is valuable to observe that the way we perceive and respond to risk can itself put us at risk. Understanding that, and understanding the specific elements that make a given risk more or less frightening than the facts alone suggest, is the first step toward avoiding the dangers of the “perception gap”, and making healthier choices for ourselves and for society.

So it’s actually ok to be irrational, as long as you know you’re being irrational. Something that, as a lifelong Sheffield United fan, I’ve known for a long while.

It’s nice to find a voice of reason in the midst of the silly season antics of the news up North.
Whenever there is an outbreak of something – anything – I always look forward to seeing the media response with a mixture of amusement, disappointment and – fairly regularly – disbelief.  Having a little insider knowledge on the bugs in question (I did my Honours project on E.coli O157:H7) and the health systems in the UK means that I can look at the reports and weed out the good from the bad, from the unbelievably sensational and the associated bandwagon-jumping that comes with these things.

Sadly, there seems to be very little good and an awful lot of the other three categories, all passed off as pertinent, accurate and relevant by the reporters. Thus, whenever I see stories about microbiology: E.coli, Foot and Mouth, Bird Flu etc etc, I’m further reminded of the shoddy nonsense that we’re being fed by the world’s media. And, rationally or not, I find myself more worried by digesting that than I would be devouring a German cucumber.