Diplomate, Board Certification of Emergency Medicine
Chairman, Department of Emergency Medicine Ma'ayenei Hayeshua Hospital
The Unseen World , Part Two
Bacteria are fascinating. This kingdom of organisms were unknown until Anton von Leuwenhook discovered the microscope in 1654. The creatures are made up of one cell and have characteristics of both animal and plant life. Some are able to act like seeds -- they are even able to remain dormant in soil for hundreds of years.
Bacteria come in many shapes and forms. Some are finicky, but some will grow on anything. Some, when seen under a microscope, can be stained with a dye and appear pink (these are called gram positive) and others are purple (gram negative). Some can only grow in areas without oxygen.
For laymen, it is easiest to think of three categories. Gram positive, Gram negative, and anaerobes, that is those who grow without oxygen. Gram positives live on our skin, and there are some in our throat (like strep). Gram negatives like the digestive tract, and are the cause of urinary tract infections, and (rarely) pneumonias. Anaerobes need moist areas where there is not a lot of movement, so they live in our mouths, bowels, and similar areas. The blood, the movement of fluids in the small intestine and the male urinary tract are moist areas, but fluids move too fast in these areas to support growth of bacteria. On the other hand, noses and mouths are full of bacteria. Those who bite hangnails, for example, know already that infections come quickly from one's saliva.
If parts of our bodies are full of bacteria, why don't we suffer more infections? The answer if simple. There are enough bacteria that aren't poisonous inhabiting these areas who don't allow the bad bacteria to proliferate. Kill these good bacteria with indiscriminate use of antibiotics and bad bacteria that are resistant to the antibiotic will grow and cause problems.
One familiar example of this is yeast infections. Fungi, which is what yeast are, are resistant to antibiotics, and they grow wildly when they are not crowded out by bacteria.
Antibiotics were discovered in the 1930s. The problem is we don't possess antibiotics that are effective against all bacteria. Those like erythromycin which kill gram positives, don't even touch anaerobes and gram negatives. Penicillin works well against some anaerobes, but against little else at this point (strep is an exception).
As bacteria are more and more exposed to antibiotics they learn to change their genes to neutralize them. They can even exchange these genes with neighboring bacteria to help them be resistant. On the other hand, if antibiotics are restricted, bacteria soon forget how to be resistant.
As with viruses, prevention is the key point. An amazing study in Atlanta showed that women using a public bathroom only washed their hands 60% of the time and men only 40% of the time. Doctors can also spread disease by not washing adequately. Faucets transmit bacteria if touched with wet hands. Children are notorious for not washing their hands well.
Public institutions that use two towels sewn together for hand drying are spreading disease. Those who own pets must understand that bites from all animals are risky, cats and snakes probably being the worst. Turtles spread Salmonella.
Everybody should know that cans that are puffed up are at risk for botulism. Since botulism can survive in a seed like state and it is thought that honey may have a small amount of these, many people do not give honey to young children.
Let's end on a positive note. Bacteria who exchange genes are also able to be trained to make important medications, like TPA, the clot-busting drug for heart attacks.
Just another wonder in a world that sparkles to honor its Blessed Creator. Write me in care of the Yated, let me know if you want me to come to your community to speak.