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Fighting One of the Four Horsemen

Posted by | December 6, 2008

If you cut me off from food for three days, I’d be fine. My body would burn the natural insulation I carry, but not much would change except that I’d be a bit grumpier.

But if you cut off nutrition from malnourished children for three days, the consequences are far more severe. Unlike me, poor kids don’t have the reserves to deal with food deprivation. That’s why many millions of children in the developing world die each year from  dysentery.

I can only imagine the heartache of parents watching their young child fade away in their arms. It’s mind-boggling to think that many of these deaths are caused by something you and I would likely experience as nothing more than the inconvenience of diarrhea.

Bacteria are responsible for many of the infections that kill malnourished children.  One particular killer is a fairly simple, spiral-shaped bacterium that lives naturally in the guts of poultry.  In birds, the bacteria do no harm. The problem arises when bird waste enters the water supply or when traces of the bacteria from the poultry gut contaminates the meat that is sold at the market.

If everyone on the planet boiled their drinking water and avoided contact with bird waste and raw poultry, the spiral bacteria wouldn’t make people ill. But without the resources to sterilize water and keep strict hygiene routines, the poorest people in the world are continually exposed to disease-causing bacteria.

The fourth horseman of the Apocalypse, Death, often results.

Earlier this fall microbiology professor Michael Konkel of Washington State University visited a hospital in Calcutta on professional business. He saw the results of such infections in young kids lying prostrate around him.

“The hospital was more like a gymnasium, with bed after bed after bed in long rows,” he said.

Infections of many kinds are rampant in Calcutta, including cholera, diphtheria, and tetanus, just to name a few. But the bacteria common in bird waste are responsible for a number of the life-threatening infections in young kids.

“The National Institutes of Health sent me along with many others to Calcutta so that we could see for ourselves the conditions that are common in developing countries,” Konkel said.

Like the rest of us, Konkel had read and heard about Calcutta for many years. That teaming but impoverished city was where Mother Teresa started her work to care for some of the world’s very poorest people. But seeing Calcutta up close was still a revelation.

“It’s hard to describe Calcutta. It is a place of extremes,” he said. “I now understand the issues more clearly because I’ve been there.”

In places like Calcutta, a successful prevention for a disease can’t be based on a $10 vaccine. It has to be something that can be made available quite cheaply.

In biology, cures for deadly plagues hinge on interrupting any one part of the long chain of details that leads to illness. The detailed ways that organic molecules interact are key to whether illness sets in and progresses. As a geologist, it’s tough for me to follow all the biological details, but talking with Konkel gives me a clear view of the big picture.

Chickens, turkeys, and other birds have a whole host of bacteria in their guts. (So do we people, of course, although ours are different ones.)

One idea for short-circuiting the effects of the spiral bacteria is to reduce their natural populations in birds. There’s growing scientific evidence that we may be able to change the mix of bacteria in poultry by giving them a dose of a bacteria commonly found in cheese and yogurt. By feeding poultry these beneficial bacteria, the set of bacteria in a bird’s gut is altered, resulting in a dramatic reduction in the number of the deadly little spiral bacteria.

If we can decrease the bacteria in poultry in the U.S., we’ll also decrease the incidence of Guillain-Barré syndrome for Americans. This fairly rare but potentially fatal neurological disease is often triggered as a result of our immune response to the infection from undercooked poultry.

Both patience and enormous scientific expertise come into play in understanding how bacteria create disease and how we might be able to disarm them effectively and cheaply.

I often end this column with a joke. But this geologist can only write about Konkel’s visit to Calcutta and his on-going research with sober respect and warm wishes.