The world is transfixed right now by the awful spectacle of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. It’s like a horror movie — it has inspired several — this monster that lurks for years in some remote African cave, then lashes out to condemn with its touch hundreds of people to a quick and ghastly death. Like a horror movie, the revulsion it inspires in us Americans is short-lived, a quick thrill of faux fear (it is, after all, in West Africa) somewhat like a child’s anxiety about a monster under the bed. But in our real-life movie, the Americans who hyperventilate briefly about the Ebola under the bed are ignorant of the fact that there are chain-saw mass murderers at the door and window.
Infectious diseases fully as horrible as Ebola are spreading across America like wildfires, ignited in many cases by industrial agriculture (whose overuse of antibiotics for profit maximization has created a raft of infections that antibiotics can no longer treat) and industrial medicine (ditto). Among the worst:
Brain Eating Amoeba. Naegleria Fowleri thrive in warm fresh water, and used to be found everywhere in the South. Now they are found just about everywhere (they reached Minnesota in 2010). When ingested, gastric juices destroy them and they give us no problem. But if they get into a nose, they drill their way into the brain, attack it and kill it — the fatality rate is 99 percent. Mercifully, cases are few. So far this year a 12-year old boy in Florida and a nine-year-old girl in Kansas have died from it. But pollution — the kind that causes the climate to heat up and the kind that loads rivers and lakes with nutrients — is helping the spread of this deadly critter, who may soon create a horror movie of its own. Last fall it showed up in the public water supply of St. Bernard’s Parish, Louisiana.
Flesh Eating Bacteria.Vibrio vulnificus bacteria thrive in warm salt water (are hosted by shellfish) and when they get into a human body (via a wound, or being ingested) cause an aggressive infection that often requires amputation of a limb and is frequently fatal. According to the Centers for Disease Control there are about 95 cases and 35 deaths every summer, most occurring in Florida, Texas and Maryland. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation this week warned that vibrio infections in its environs are increasing. Maryland alone had 57 cases last year.
Nightmare Bacteria. (As if the others aren’t.) Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE) live in our gut, just doing their job, until they get out, usually in a hospital situation, and then they go on a rampage. What sets them apart, even from other drug-resistant superbugs, is that they are resistant to the antibiotic that is the treatment of last resort when the others fail. CREs were found in one hospital in the United States in 2001. By 2013 they were in 46 states. A new study has found that CRE cases increased fivefold in community hospitals in the southeastern United States between 2008 and 2012. Now, 9,300 people are infected in America every year, and 600 of them die. (Ebola in West Africa so far — 900 fatalities.)
And then there’s MRSA, or methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, also used to refer to staph bacteria resistant to other drugs, which was setting the doctors’ hair on fire five years ago. MRSA infection rates and mortality are down significantly in the past five years, but other superbugs have arisen in that time (see CRE, above) and in all, the CDC estimates that drug-resistant bacteria infect 2 million people a year and kill 23,000 of them.
So by all means shudder at the stories about Ebola, but don’t wait for it to get here before you buy that hazmat suit.
See Also: Meat Industry: Have MRSA On Us