More MS news articles for Feb 2002

A thoughtful look at threat of microbes on the march

James F. Sweeney
Plain Dealer Staff Writer

Reading "Secret Agents" makes whoever mailed an thrax spores seem like a front-runner as well as a criminal. The bugs don't need the help.

Medical journalist Madeline Drexler stops short of stating that we're doomed, but a reader already made jittery by anthrax, mad cow disease and the West Nile virus is going to come away from her new book, "Secret Agents," thinking we have less to fear from hijacked planes than from mankind's oldest and deadliest foes: bacteria and viruses.

In a volume written for the educated layman, Drexler, a former Plain Dealer reporter, does an admirable job of explaining the threats from our food supply, the overuse of antibiotics, exotic viruses such as Ebola, the woeful state of the world's public-health systems and bioterrorism. She touches on the radical but growing school of thought that many chronic illnesses, such as multiple sclerosis and heart disease, are caused by infectious agents.

Though diseases such as hemorrhagic fever and drug-resistant tuberculosis are horrifying, it's easy to feel grudging admiration for the agents that cause them. Like Antaeus, the mythological wrestler who only got stronger when Hercules pinned him to the earth, these microorganisms have bounced back every time medicine thought they were throttled.

Their weapons are adaptation and evolution, the same traits that allow humans to thrive. The bugs' advantage is that they do it faster. So an antibiotic that kills 99 percent of a particular bacterium can be rendered useless in a few years when the microorganisms that survived the initial attack take over, spreading resistance to new generations. Despite medical progress, some infectious diseases are outstripping the antibiotics and soon could lap them, raising the possibility that infections once easily beaten, such as staph, again could become fatal.

Drexler is a clear and concise writer who avoids sensationalism despite the nature of the subject. She is particularly good at drawing little portraits of the book's heroes, the scientists and medical workers who track and battle the new diseases.

She is at her most convincing when dealing with the worldwide unreadiness for the next flu pandemic. There have been 13 of them since the 16th century, Drexler writes, with the worst being the Spanish flu of 1918. It killed 20 million to 40 million people worldwide, far more than were killed in World War I.

Strains of the flu virus constantly mutate. Inoculation against one form often is no protection against the latest version. Intercontinental travel means new strains will spread even faster and could be worldwide before officials even realize the threat exists.

It's not a question of if another flu pandemic hits, Drexler writes, it's a matter of when. Conclusions such as this make "Secret Agents" an uncomfortable and sometimes gloomy read. But for those who want to know the real enemy, it's an informative one.

Sweeney is a reporter in the features department of The Plain Dealer.

© 2002 The Plain Dealer