Field of Science

“Are we doomed?”

#SciDoom A frightening blog post title to say the least!
I first had visions of zombies.. but then something as tiny as an antibiotic resistant bacterium, or as big as an asteroid, could cause us all impending doom. However.. Something like an antibiotic, or perhaps blowing up the asteroid, could save us?
So.. I’m back to the zombies. Most classic zombie movies start by someone becoming 'infected' by an animal, or mutated organism, that has a contagious virus. This virus then spreads throughout the human population turning us all, but a few, into the mindless, slow 'walking dead'. These movies either end happily (a cure is found) or badly (no cure is found and everybody becomes a zombie).

Could it happen?
But could this ‘zombie-type doom’ really happen? My first reaction would be ‘No - are you having a laugh?’ however, when you look closer, there is some science here that could possibly make this happen..
Artificial viruses & zoonotic diseases could all cause a ‘zombie-type doom’ and the virus could be blood borne, or even water borne to cause worldwide devastation – with no means of escape.

Artificial viruses?
Scientists are manipulating viruses daily (in order to find out how they work and to develop vaccines). Some scientists may even change the virus completely giving rise to a new virus. A new virus, if it was to escape from a secure research facility, could be devastating – particularly if it’s a ‘zombie-type doom’ virus.
Still doubting me? One such virus, the Variola virus (the virus that causes smallpox) has been studied by scientists for years since it was eradicated in 1979. So if this disease was eradicated, why study it? Well studying this virus can help develop vaccines against similar viruses that are a problem today. However, if this virus was to escape from these secure research facilities then it could cause a viral outbreak. Worst case scenario: If this virus has been manipulated or artificially altered then it could cause a ‘zombie-type doom’

Zoonotic diseases?
Ok, so if our scientists are incredibly careful people then an artificial ‘zombie-type doom’ virus is unlikely to be developed, or escape. But.. What about zoonotic diseases?
Animal diseases have been well known to spread to humans; some common examples are HIV, Rabies, Plague, Salmonellosis, Avian influenza, Swine influenza, Ebola and BSE.
So if a dog was to be infected by a ‘zombie-type doom’ virus then, not only would this make the dog a zombie but if this was a zoonotic disease – then a bite could transfer the disease to humans. Once transferred to humans the disease could spread through the community leading to the ‘zombie-type doom’.
An example from last year is the case of Swine Flu. This disease was just present in pigs until the virus mutated and crossed the 'speices barrier', enabling it to cause disease in humans. The disease spread rapidly due to it being transmitted via aerosols. Also; Swine Flu managed to cause a global outbreak due to most people using air travel and working in busy cities. The virus was also capable of causing fatal disease in 'healthy adults' – making it a dangerous disease.

Can we be saved?
Yes and No is the short answer. Yes - if we could develop a vaccine before we all become 'zombies' (or we grab a cricket bat and do what they did in 'Shaun  of the dead'). No - if we could not develop a vaccine in time.
But don't worry - hopefully this 'zombie type doom' will not occur - however viral and other microbial diseases are a certainity. Diseases like Swine Flu will still cause us problems.

World Hepatitis Day

It's world Hepatitis day and this blood borne viral disease shouldn't be forgotten. Hepatitis B is the most common and can cause severe liver disease (including liver cancer). There is a vaccine for Hepatitis B, however it can only be given if you are not infected with the virus. If infected highly effective anti-viral drugs and interferons are available. The trouble with this disease is that many people are unaware they have it, making it a huge problem globally.

A few facts:
  • There are 5 forms of the virus (A, B & C being most common with D & E being more rare)
  • 10 million drug users worldwide have Hepatitis C
  • 1.3 million drug users worldwide have Hepatitis B
  • Approximatley half of the UK's drug users have been infected with Hepatitis C virus

So, Hepatitis should not be forgotten and can be transmitted, like HIV, via bodily fluids, such as intraveneous drug users and sexual intercourse (however hepatitis is 50 to100 times more infectious than HIV).

Key messages: Be AWARE of Hepatitis, get vaccinated, get tested, get treated.

World Health Organization (WHO) (accessed 28/07/11)
BBC News (accessed 28/07/11)

Infection control at sea - should we be taking note?

Disease outbreaks at sea are just as dangerous as hospital, school and community outbreaks on land. However, this is often forgotten by excited tourists embarking on a much needed holiday. When thousands of holiday makers from across the world come together on a cruise ship the results can be devastating. Due to a ship being isolated in the middle of the ocean an outbreak can spread fast, leaving individuals defenceless and with no means of escape.
Outbreaks on cruise ships in previous years, such as the Mediterranean cruise norovirus outbreak in May 2010 (The Guardian 21/5/2010), have ruined many holidays.
Norovirus infections consist of diarrhoea and vommiting. They are also easily transmitted from person to person, making them a common problem in the community.

To prevent these outbreaks cruise liners have had to increase infection control procedures which, after recently travelling on one, I feel are highly effective and should be taken note of.
  • Before embarking all passengers have to fill out a 'health questionnaire'. If a passenger has been unwell in the past 7 days this is known before departure and infection control procedures can be implemented quickly.
  • When on the ship it seems you can't walk more than 10 meters before you see an alcohol gel hand dispenser. If you try and avoid these it won't be long before a staff member greats you with a friendly squirt of hand gel before dinner. Alcohol gel is highly effective at killing viruses, that can be transmitted via hand to hand contact, which reduces the chances of an outbreak occurring.

As well as this, staff regularly disinfect the corridors and other communal areas.
If, After all of these measures, a passenger becomes ill then they are immediately issolated from other passengers. This may not be ideal for the individual but it does prevent a large outbreak from occurring.

I feel that cruise liners take infection control very seriously and deal with it effectively. Therefore, perhaps schools and hospitals should stand up and take note in this fight against infection.

Badgers and TB

Apparently a 'Badger cull' is expected in the South-West of England to help reduce Bovine Tuberculosis (or TB in cows). Bovine Tuberculosis is caused by Mycobacterium bovis and is an acid fast bacillus bacterium that causes lower respiratory disease in cattle (see image below)
A Mycobacterium species similar to the organism responsible for Bovine TB
So is this the way we should be dealing with it? If a human case of TB arrises we don't go round killing humans to help reduce it. However it's not the cows we're killing in this case - it's the badgers.
Badger's carry Bovine TB without it causing them any harm - however if they come into contact with cattle then this can cause them to transmit the disease to a herd. This can then give rise to diseased animals and end up an economic loss to the farmer.

Badgers and TB are like Chickens and Salmonella. Salmonella won't make the chickens ill, however if we were to come in contact with a chicken (dead or alive) and not wash our hands then we'd probably end up with Salmonella poisoning.
But hang on.. we didn't go round killing off chickens? (mainly because they provide us with food) so why the badgers? Well we don't use them for food.. but wouldn't a vaccine be more of an idea? (chickens get vaccinated against a type of Salmonella that causes food poisoning).

Also earlier this month Imperial College London said that new analysis confirmed that a 'badger cull' may increase the risk of bovine TB to nearby herds.

So for or against the Badger cull? I feel it won't stop the spread of Bovine TB (and with the information above probably increase it!). It may reduce it but a vaccine for badgers or cattle would be a better option and would keep the badger loving people happy

Thanks for reading :)

Antibiotic resistance - First E. coli now Gonorrhoea

It was E. coli a few weeks ago, now it's Gonorrhoea.. will it ever end? No is the most probable answer. Unfortunatly over recent years an increase in antibiotic resistant microorganisms (or SUPER bugs) have become a common feature in the news.
Why is this? Well due to my recent post about 'World Health day' and 'Super bugs' we could go straight away and start blaming antibiotics. Misuse of them could be to blame but also there are hardly any new antibiotics being developed at the moment - and this is a problem as.. worse case scenario.. these bugs could develop resistance to almost all of our current antibiotics.
What does this mean? Well.. we'll probably have to start living in a giant bubble as it means these diseases we've treated with antibiotics (pneumonia, TB, meningitis) would end up in higher mortality rates (not good).

So what can be done? Well hand washing, disinfection and using antibiotics correctly is something everyone can do... but scientists? Research into this area of new antibiotics or other ways is needed urgently! However to do this scientists need funding, and that relies on the governement hopefully recognising that antibiotic resistance is a real problem and could be a global health risk.

-When I say 'other ways' well.. bacteriophage therapy is a new way of treatment. Bacteriophage's are basically tiny viruses that infect bacteria, but are HARMLESS to humans. This is a new area of investigation and so.. watch this space as bacteriophage's could be a new way of tackling this problem

For more info check out June 2009's Microbiologist for information on 'bacteriophage therapy' via the Society for Applied Microbiology (SfAM)

Social media and Science

After recently attending the SfAM Summer conference in Dublin it was plain to see that social media was playing a big role in science and communication.

The SfAM Twitter provided information about the conference to those present, and those away, throughout the duration of the conference. This was also done by the 'hashtag' #sfamsc11.
Being in control of SfAM's Twitter (probably the best thing that's ever happened to me!) made me aware of what an impact our tweets about the conference had. The amount of replies, mentions and re-tweets was very encouraging (and an increase in followers is always a plus!).

The 'hashtag' worked really well, with delegates at the conference also tweeting amongst each other and viewing the tweets throughout the conference.
It was also great to see so many new 'tweeters' with several delegates signing up to Twitter and getting involved. It was also encouraging to see a few of the keynote speakers (Alan Reilly and Alec Kyriakides from 'Ireland's Food Safety Authority & Sainsbury's) also promote the importance of social media.

Due to social media, particularly Twitter, being highly successful at this year's conference, it's likely that social media will continue to go from strength to strength within the science community.