Good bugs and bad

We have a love-hate relationship with bugs.

In the same commercial break, you’ll see ads for yoghurt full of friendly bacteria, followed by another for a cleaner that promises to kill all known bacteria dead. The growth in anti-bacterial products and the growing use of anti-biotics may make us cleaner and safer today; but there is growing evidence that they may undermine our defences in the future. To quote yet another ad, ‘dirt is good’.

Does fighting bugs do us more harm than the bugs themselves? It was leakage from the Pirbright lab researching foot and mouth disease that caused last year’s outbreak in Surrey. That was an accident. In the USA, it seems to have gone one worse.

In a plot worthy of CSI, the 2001 anthrax attacks are now blamed on a scientist working on defence against, er, anthrax attacks. As the New York Times reports, “In the years since anthrax-laced letters were sent to members of Congress and news organizations in late 2001, killing five people, almost $50 billion in federal money has been spent to build new laboratories, develop vaccines and stockpile drugs”. That’s money that could be better spent on much more widespread, if less sensational, public health threats – like tuberculosis.

Or cancer. The NHS vaccinating girls against the virus (HPV), that causes most cervical cancer, doesn’t come cheap. Estimates are it will cost £600M to vaccinate all girls from 12 to 16. But that is money well spent.


1 Comment »

  1. lunartalks said

    ‘We have a love-hate relationship with bugs. ‘

    Nah, we’re an environment for them. 90% of the cells in our bodies are bacterial.

    ‘Does fighting bugs do us more harm than the bugs themselves?’

    Our immune systems do a pretty good job of keeping us healthy given that bacteria and viruses are trying to infect us round the clock. If by fighting the bugs you mean the routine use of bactericides like microban, I suspect that we may simply be selecting for the most virulent domestic bacteria. Remember the 1918 flu killed 20-50 million based on a case fatality ratio of 2-5%. H5N1 so far has a case fatality ratio in the (rare) human infections of 67% (2007) and 76% (2008) – that means that for every 100 infected, more than 60 will die. There is no guarantee that H5N1 will be the next cause of a human flu pandemic, but if it does, I think the current research fight, and the fight to make a vaccine when the pandemic strain does emerge, will mitigate the harm.

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