Bacteria are ubiquitous, present in the soil, air and water around you. Some bacteria can be beneficial, while other bacteria causes illness and even death. Pathogenic bacteria, those organisms that cause disease, relentlessly bombard your body daily. Your body's immune system fights off most of these invaders. Some types of bacteria cause more harm to humans than others, overwhelming your body's defences and frequently causing death in terrifying ways and at alarming speeds.
The bacteria Bacillus anthracis, or anthrax, can enter the body via three avenues: through the skin, into the lungs or down the digestive tract. Of these three methods, inhalation anthrax is the most deadly, with symptoms resembling those of the flu or a cold. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) classify anthrax as a Category A agent, the most dangerous group of pathogens, or disease-causing organisms.
Animals may spread the anthrax bacteria to humans through contact with infected animal products, inhalation of spores originating from infected animals or consumption of infected meat not thoroughly cooked. So far, human-to-human infections have not occurred. Treatment currently includes antibiotics. A vaccine does exist, but it is not yet available to the public.
Clostridium botulinum causes a severe form of food poisoning, with most cases arising from improper canning methods. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) notes that acidity or high heat will kill the bacteria. Once inside the human body, the bacteria start producing toxins, or poisons. Just a minute amount of toxin can make you ill with botulism. Botulinum toxin acts on the nervous system, causing trouble with respiration, swallowing, speaking, vision and overall physical weakness. Death results from the inability to breathe when the toxin paralyses breathing muscles. Early introduction of an antitoxin and respiratory aid can save a patient.
The infamous E. coli normally inhabits the intestines of healthy individuals. Sometimes, certain strains, or forms, of the bacteria arise that become detrimental to humans, especially the very young, immune-compromised or elderly. One rare, dangerous strain causes bleeding in the intestines. This strain produces a toxin which causes humans to lose blood and other fluids, resulting in dehydration and possible permanent kidney damage in children and death in older adults. To prevent illness caused by E. coli, Dr. John C. Brown, a professor in the Molecular Biosciences Department at the University of Kansas, advises cooking meat thoroughly and practicing basic hygienic measures when dealing with raw food items.
Also called necrotizing fasciitis, flesh-eating disease occurs when bacteria consume human tissues lying under the skin, causing death of tissues and fatalities in a short amount of time. There are many pathogens that can cause this extreme disorder, one of which is the same kind of bacteria that causes strep throat.
Flesh-eating disease almost always follows an initial skin wound. The bacteria mainly act on the tissues found in the extremities, leaving gaping wounds and masses of darkened, dead flesh. Researchers hypothesise the body's own immune system produces substances that destroy healthy human tissue while eradicating the bacteria. Medical personnel must act quickly to save the patient by introducing antibiotics and surgically removing any dead or infected tissues. About 30 per cent of affected persons die from the disease. Survivors of the infection often have gross disfigurements they can ameliorate through plastic surgery.
Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)
MRSA transmits through person-to-person contact or by use of contaminated items or surfaces. About 25 to 30 per cent of the population carries the normal form of the Staphylococcus aureus on the skin or in the nose. Only one or two per cent carries the resistant type or strain, which does not respond to conventional antibiotics previously used to treat staph infections, such as methicillin.
Excessive and unnecessary use of antibiotics in the past has led to the evolution and proliferation of these deadly, antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. MRSA infections occur often in health care settings such as hospitals and are notoriously hard to treat, often involving hospitalisation and antibiotics given intravenously.
Clostridium tetani, the bacterium causing tetanus, can exist almost anywhere while their spores can remain inactive in soil. When a wound introduces the spores into the deep recesses of the body, the bacteria become active, producing toxins which affect the nerves. The muscles of the body contract sporadically, injuring muscles and bones and causing locking of the jaw. Left untreated, tetanus can cause a mortality rate of about 25 per cent in adults, according to the National Institutes of Health. A tetanus vaccine administered to the general population provides protection from the bacteria for approximately 10 years. Physicians may treat a patient diagnosed with tetanus, or lockjaw, with antibiotics, muscle relaxants, antitoxin and surgery, which removes bacteria remaining in the wound.
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- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Anthrax-What You Need to Know
- Microbiology Department of the University of Michigan at Dearborn: Flesh Eating Bacteria
- The Virtual Museum of Bacteria: Pathogenic Bacteria
- University of Kansas: Bugs in the News-What the Heck Is an E. coli?
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: Bad Bug Book-Clostridium Botulinum
- U.S. National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health: Medline-Tetanus