Our battle against bacteria is tilting in our favor. After all, we have vaccines and antibiotics on our side. That doesn’t mean we can get cocky. It’s tilting, not surrendering at our feet.
But we’re still struggling to find ways to kill viruses once they’ve infected us. At best, we can sometimes control them.
Although we can kill viruses on our bodies and other surfaces with disinfectants, it’s difficult to kill them when they’re living inside our cells. When we’re infected with a virus, it takes up residence in one of our cells and uses the cell’s machinery to reproduce itself.
Developing a drug that will kill the virus without disrupting the intracellular machinery of uninfected cells is no easy task. It’s like playing Jenga—eventually the whole structure will collapse.
Bacteria, on the other hand, generally live outside of our cells and are easier targets.
There are some bacteria that have developed a resistance to not just one drug, say for instance penicillin, but to many such drugs. They’re known as multi-drug resistant microorganisms such as streptococcus pneumoniae and mycobacterium tuberculosis, germs that we thought were very much under control and are now surging back into the population.
One major factor in preventing us from understanding the world of microbes is the size of that world.
The folks at the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences put bacteria into perspective this way, “Bacteria vary somewhat in size, but average about 1/25,000 inch. In other words, 25,000 bacteria laid side by side would occupy only one inch of space. One cubic inch is big enough to hold nine trillion average size bacteria—about 3,000 bacteria for every person on earth.
“Bacteria make up the largest group of micro-organisms. People often think of them only as germs and the harm they do. Actually, only a small number of [the thousands of different] bacteria types are pathogenic (disease-causing). Most are harmless and many are helpful.”
Neal Rolfe Chamberlain, professor at the Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine, explains viruses in this manner, “Viruses are very small forms of life. In fact, people still argue over whether viruses are really alive. Viruses range in size from about 20 to 300 nanometers (nm). A nanometer is 0.000001 of a millimeter. A millimeter is 1/25 of an inch. So in other words, you can place 25,000,000 nanometers in an inch. If the biggest virus is 300 nm then you could fit 83,333 of that virus in an inch.
“Viruses are major freeloaders. They cannot make anything on their own. To reproduce they must infect other living cells. Viruses infect bacteria, parasites, fungi, plants, animals, and humans. No one escapes them. If you have had the flu, chickenpox, measles, a common cold, mono, a cold sore, or a sore throat you have been infected by a virus!”
Some viruses, like HIV and hepatitis C, tend to develop strains that can resist mono drug therapy (treating the patient with one drug at a time). We have to try and control the viruses with combination, or “cocktail” drugs (treating the patient with several drugs at once), although even that approach does not always work. Some viruses can keep mutating until we’ve run out of drugs to try.
All this is to say that fighting microbes is seldom a simple task, and seemingly one that is neverending. For example, we have a whooping cough vaccine, but new strains are popping up and new vaccines are needed for this astoundingly infectious microbe.
We will never be rid of our tiny co-inhabitants on this world, and anyway, most of them we want to keep around. It’s those others . . . wouldn’t it be nice to have a jail for nasty microbes?
By PKIDs’ Staff