Revenge of the Killer Bugs: Emerging Infectious Diseases
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
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
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
"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
"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