With the Ebola epidemic recently spreading outside the African continent, we have a terrible real life example of what can happen when an engineered and untreatable bug, like the one by produced by Nusmen,in the book, Off The Edge, (see image, Staphylococcus aureus on blood agar), gets loose. Throughout history, millions of people have died of diseases such as bubonic plague, also known as the Black Death, which is caused by Yersinia pestis bacteria, and smallpox, which is caused by the variola virus. In more recent times viral infections have been responsible for two major pandemics: the 1918-1919 “Spanish flu” epidemic that killed an estimated 60-80 million people (estimates vary widely), and the ongoing AIDS epidemic that caused an estimated 1.3 million deaths worldwide in 2015. Although HIV mortality is declining, it is still a major cause of death in the African region.
The possibility of an untreatable bug being developed and released is unfortunately not just fantasy. Many experts feel that it is an eventuality that we are little prepared for. The author agrees that there is a high probability of a future pandemic.
- Both can be spread by touching contaminated surfaces; Nusmen smears traces of SAVE (Staphylococcus Aureus Vancomycin Resistant) or ‘the Nusbug’ on surfaces in the University of Washington Medical Centre and people touching those surfaces unwittingly spread the disease. The SAVE bug is resistant to all antibiotics including the “high end” drug of last resort, the vanquishing drug – Vancomycin. Nusmen and a fellow student easily engineered his deadly bacteria while at university.
- Both EBOLA and SAVE need isolation to stop the spread.
- Neither have a surefire cure, nor is there a vaccine to prevent them. In the novel Off The Edge, the scientists, as Jim suggests they might, eventually find an anti-toxin, which, although it would not stop the spread of the bacteria, would limit the lethal damage caused by the toxin it produces.
However, in spite of any semblance of likeness, the two are very different: the Nusbug is a BACTERIUM and Ebola is a VIRUS.
Bacterial and viral infections can cause similar symptoms such as coughing and sneezing, fever, inflammation, vomiting, diarrhea, fatigue, and cramping — all of which are ways the immune system tries to rid the body of infectious organisms. This makes it difficult sometimes to tell whether an infection is bacterial or viral. Even JT (a microbiologist in Off The Edge and in the series books that follow – Over The Line and Out Of Time, says, when he first hears of the Nusbug, ‘…if it’s untreatable it is likely to be a virus or maybe even a prion…’ Bacteria and viruses are both usually too small to be seen without a microscope but there are interesting exceptions. For example there is a giant bacteria found in ocean sediments that can just be seen by the naked eye or at least with very powerful reading glasses. Viruses are usually smaller than bacteria but there is a 30,000 year old virus that is similar in size to ‘normal’ bacteria, though still far too small to be seen without a microscope. Both viruses and bacteria can mutate rapidly, so finding a permanent fix is a problem.
Despite these similarities, bacterial and viral infections are very different in many other important respects, as different as jelly and chocolate. Most of these differences are due to the organisms’ structural differences and the way they respond to medications.
- Bacteria are relatively complex, single-celled creatures, some kinds with a rigid wall surrounding the interior of the cell, and others with a softer lipid wall. They can reproduce on their own. Fossilized records show that bacteria have likely existed for over 3.5 billion years, and perhaps longer on Earth. Bacteria can survive in different environments, including extreme heat in deserts and in Arctic ice, hot radioactive waste and, of course, in and on animals and the human body.
- Most bacteria are harmless; many are helpful, or even necessary: for example in digesting food, destroying disease-causing microbes, fighting cancer cells, and providing essential nutrients. Perhaps as few as 1% of bacteria cause diseases in people.
- Viruses are usually much tinier: the largest of them are smaller on the whole than the smallest bacteria. Essentially all they are is a strand of genetic material, either RNA or DNA. Unlike bacteria, most viruses can’t survive long without a host. They can only reproduce by inserting themselves into cells. In most cases, they reprogram the cells, either human or unicellular bacteria, to make new viruses until the cells burst, releasing the replicated viral strands to infect hundreds to thousands of healthy cells.
- Also, unlike all bacteria, most viruses do cause disease, and they’re quite specific about the cells they attack. For example, certain viruses attack cells in the liver, respiratory system, or blood. In some cases, viruses, (Phages), target bacterial cells. We all know about specific problems caused by viruses, such as Herpes, Measles, Mumps, Polio, Rabies, Dengue Fever, and even warts.
- Whilst vaccines can be effective in prevention of certain bacterial and viral infections, only those infections caused by bacteria are potentially treatable by antibiotics.
This means that Ebola and SAVE (Nusmen and Wally Banks’ name for their superbug in the adventure novel Off The Edge) are very different and the approach to combatting them has to be different
- The virus Ebola causes bleeding inside and outside the body. As it spreads through the body, it damages the immune system and organs.
- The Nusbug, called Vancomycin Resistant Staphylococcus aureus is similar to MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) . It is one of the bacteria that causes so much trouble in hospitals, but the Nusbug cannot be treated by the vanquishing antibiotics such as those used in the first line of defense for MRSA , although MRSA is gaining resistance to this treatment.
- Healthy people can contract the Nusbug and may not be symptomatic. People, including doctors and medical staff, could infect others while showing no symptoms and never getting sick themselves.
- Only those whose immune systems were already damaged or weak, e.g. the sick, the old, the very young and those undergoing chemotherapy, were likely to suffer from the Nusbug. This made it more evil in some people’s eyes, although it also made it easier to contain.
Any comparisons between Ebola and SAVE are, luckily, purely hypothetical,: Ebola is a real virus and a growing threat, while the Nusbug is only fictional, the product of RS Perry’s imagination. Like most things in the Jim Johnson novels, however, it is based on factual information, and the possibility is out there. Let’s hope that there is no real-life genius like Nusmen, temporarily crazy for whatever reason, increasing the risk from the many viruses and bacteria that are themselves adapting and learning, increasing the odds of a worldwide and deadly epidemic.
Microbial Life by Jerome J. Perry, James T. Staley and Stephen Lory; Sinauer Associates 2002
Are you a doctor? Do you have any experience of treating viral or bacterial epidemics? Have you, or anyone you know, had the misfortune to be infected during an epidemic?
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