This week marked the birthday of Mary Mallon (1869-1938), an Irish cook best remembered as the vector in several outbreaks of typhoid fever in 19th century New York and Long Island. Her ability to spread the source of typhoid fever through her domestic employment showed public health and medical officials the importance of screening individuals involved in food preparation to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. Fifty-three or more unsuspecting victims died related to her temporary presence in their lives. Such may be our ultimate fate unless we realize the importance of infections in our modern society, a fact presaged and vividly depicted in a fictional work written during Mary's life here in America.
Do you remember reading, hearing or seeing H. G. Wells' famous science fiction story The War of the Worlds? Writing in the late Victorian age (1897), Wells used the story of the invasion of aggressive creatures from the planet Mars, possessing advanced scientific knowledge, to reflect upon contemporary Victorian thinking regarding industrial and scientific progress while ignoring the existing difficult social situation. Nearly 40 years later in 1938, at Halloween time, another Wells, radio actor-producer Orson Welles, vividly recreated the story as occurring in New Jersey with such remarkable realism that a severe panic ensued among the listening populace as people fled their homes in fear.
Some years ago at a book fair in St. Paul, I found a copy of "Classics Illustrated" comic book No. 124, The War of the Worlds, with the cover depicting those terrifying robot-like machines which the Martians used to destroy the London countryside. The futility of the British defensive forces to repel the Martian invasion was evident and contributed to the pathos expressed by the wandering and depressed narrator of the story. And yet, as the story reached its climax, he awakened to find the Martians all deadbut why and how? I immediately reread the original story in its entirety to learn the dramatic answer.
Wells, speaking as the narrator, says (paraphrased): "The Martians had been slain by disease bacteria against which their systems were totally unprepared. There are no bacteria on Mars, and as soon as the invaders arrived on Earth, our microscopic allies began to work their overthrowthey must have begun to rot as soon as they arrived." Indeed, in this fictional setting, the benefits of our own bacteria were lifesaving.
Nearly a century after Wells' remarkable story appeared, a major bioterrorism attack occurred in Oregon. A religiously oriented commune tried to gain political power by attempting to sicken enough voters so that commune members would be elected to office, thereby gaining political advantage. The weapon used was a simple enteric or intestinal pathogen spread by members using food as an agentSalmonella species, to the agent which was spread by "Typhoid." In this case the bacteria had a similar but less evil effect.
We live in a world filled with bacteria. They are needed to provide substances for our own bodies directly and for food and domestic products that we require for life. We would die without certain bacteria, but we cannot survive attacks by harmful bacteria such as those entering our brain (meningitis), circulatory system (sepsis, endocarditis), lungs (pneumonia), and other areas. Our skin protects us even though the skin itself is populated with Streptococcus and Staphylococcus organisms. A break in our defenses may lead to severe skin infections ("boils" or cellulitis) and even systemic or internal infections.
The ability of our bodies to fight the hostile bacteria is related to our immune systems, that part of our body that recognizes and destroys foreign invaders. Babies, ill and debilitated persons, those with connective tissue diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, cancer patients undergoing therapy, and those patients with AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome) from retroviral infection may not adequately fight even minor infections and may die from their immunodepressed statelike the Martians!
Modern science, like the Victorians, may think that the situation is under control. But, just as in Wells' frightening scenario, we humans are vulnerable to forces as yet unknown to us.
We can prepare and protect ourselves by maintaining a healthy and nutritionally balanced lifestyle, using antibiotics very carefully and appropriately, and obtaining prescribed vaccines; simple hand washing is also effective. We need to use our wisdom and experience to avoid the hostile bacteria and their dangerous and serious effects in our world.