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Revenge of the Killer Bugs: Emerging Infectious Diseases

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WebMD Health News

April 26, 2000 -- In the movie Outbreak, Dustin Hoffman and Rene Russo race against the clock to stop the spread of a deadly Ebola-like virus that emerged from the African jungle. Life isn't usually as dramatic as Hollywood would have us believe, but public health experts caution that the source of a serious infectious illness could be as close as our kitchen tables or backyards.

Thanks to vaccines, smallpox has been wiped out, and other diseases such as polio may soon be found only in medical history books. But other deadly scourges such as tuberculosis are on the comeback trail, and reports of food-poisoning caused by bacteria and other microscopic organisms are on the rise.

Most troubling of all is that many of the new disease-causing agents are "super-bugs," so called because they can't easily be killed by most available antibiotics or other drugs and are therefore extremely difficult to treat. Cause for panic? Not exactly, but the growing number of emerging infections is definitely cause for concern and action, say public health experts.

"The underlying cause of why these things happen is the changing food supply, growing world population, international travel, and overuse of antibiotics," says Michael T. Osterholm, PhD, MPH, in an interview with WebMD. Osterholm, who wrote an editorial on the issue in the April 27 issue of TheNew England Journal of Medicine, is chief executive officer of ican Inc., a medical information company. The issue contains several studies reporting on outbreaks of new strains of disease caused by contact with animals or contaminated food.

Never underestimate the ability of contagious bacteria, viruses, and parasites to survive, grow, and cause disease, public health experts caution. In many cases, modern medicine is fighting back against bugs that have exploited modern technology and the habits of modern man to find a new ecological foothold.

"We never had Ebola virus infections until people went out to cut trees and live in areas of the forest where they never used to live," says Robert W. Ryder, professor of epidemiology of microbial diseases at Yale University, in an interview with WebMD. "Emerging infections are not really new ? strains, just newly encountered strains, but as we live in different ways and begin to encroach on certain environmental niches that we never used to encroach on, we're stumbling on them."

In other words, the spread of disease and the emergence of new infectious organisms are the unintended consequences of human actions.

"The things that make infectious diseases come and go are dynamic," says Robert W. Pinner, MD, director of the office of surveillance at the National Center for Infectious Diseases, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Pinner tells WebMD that choices that we make every day can have profound effects upon the development and spread of infectious organisms.

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