Thursday, January 14, 2010

A Bug's Life.

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Feb. 14--GAINESVILLE -- People may think they sit atop the food chain, but far smaller creatures lurk in the shadows, waiting to pounce.

The list is extensive: cholera, malaria, E. coli, influenza, measles, SARS, tuberculosis, HIV, dengue fever, Ebola. Along with other infectious diseases, they feed on a diet of humans, killing more than 17 million people a year.

Of course, not all microbes are bad. Some that live in our bodies are essential to good health. Penicillin, considered a medical miracle, repairs and saves countless lives.

But how much does the average person really know about these organisms? What can young people learn about them, how do they affect our health and what can be done to control their spread?

That's the point of an educational science exhibit "Microbes: Invisible Invaders, Amazing Allies," running through May at the Florida Museum of Natural History. The traveling show explores harmful and helpful germs that sustain life -- or have the potential to destroy it.

The exhibit explains the microbial spectrum and our place within it. Visitors learn what these creatures look like, how they attack healthy cells and make us sick, or wean us back to normal. It stresses the role of emerging diseases, including those that mutate by building tolerances to antibiotics.

The two pathogen camps are viruses and bacteria. A virus is a parasite, surviving by attaching itself to a host cell, which it infects and duplicates. Bacteria live independent of a host cell. They reproduce by dividing into two identical offspring, creating as many as 10 billion cells in a day.

The show also explains the historical role of disease. In 1357, for example, ships arriving in Italy carried bubonic plague, unleashing a Black Death that killed an estimated 25 million people throughout Europe. An outbreak of influenza in the early 20th century killed almost as many.

Although modern science has made inroads controlling disease, conquests in the war are rare, possibly becoming more so. Since 1980, the year the World Health Organization declared an end to smallpox, global deaths from infectious disease have increased sevenfold.

Why? Overpopulation, poverty, lack of clean water. Pathogens once contained to specific regions of the world now travel the microbial superhighway, hitching rides on airplanes and ships that carry them across borders in a matter of hours. Drug resistance is the next challenge, says John Sinnott, chief of infectious diseases at Tampa General Hospital.

"So it's very important for people to be aware of the role of infectious disease," he says. "The world we live in faces the problem of emerging pathogens, and it's essential for people to understand the cause of them."

One particularly alarming microbe is not just emerging, Sinnott says, but exploding with a force people may not be prepared to handle.

"Avian influenza is primed to be an epidemic like no other," he says. "But you talk to the average person on the street, and they have no idea of the problem."

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(c) 2005, Tampa Tribune, Fla. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. For information on republishing this content, contact us at (800) 661-2511 (U.S.), (213) 237-4914 (worldwide), fax (213) 237-6515, or e-mail

Source Citation
"A Bug's Life." Tampa Tribune [Tampa, FL] 14 Feb. 2005. General OneFile. Web. 14 Jan. 2010. .

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