Sunday, March 14, 2010


Infectious diseases are caused and spread by microorganisms like bacteria, virus, fungus etc which are not visible to the naked eye. This lulls humans to ignore their existence around them. If there is a multi billion vaccine industry that thrives across the world, thanks are due to these invisible agents of disease. Recall the recent H1N1 pandemic which kept the whole world on tenterhooks for more than 6 months because of its potential to infect youngsters and spread rapidly. Being a new strain of virus with unknown features, preventive vaccines were not immediately available. Even to day the vaccines for H1N1 are just coming out of the laboratory and only limited doses are available for use against most vulnerable population. This is a classical example of a tiny organism with less than a few microns in size terrorizing the whole world with uncontrolled roll for a few months beginning in Mexico in early 2009.

If the world is safe from such dreaded diseases like Small Pox, Polio, Whooping Cough, Influenza and others the pharma industry played a major role in developing appropriate vaccines for mass immunization of children at young age. In contrast food borne diseases claim human lives periodically through consumption of contaminated foods during manufacture, storage, transport and retailing. Restaurants are highly vulnerable to food related safety problems as most of their preparations are intended to be consumed within a few hours of their making. But unpredictable clientele can often result in surplus production which is preserved in low temperature storage rooms. Added to this the cooking and serving personnel can cause cross infection through the food they cook or serve on which very little control is possible.

An object as small as a pin head can hold more than 10 million bacteria which under favorable conditions can double its population in less than 20 minutes. How do they get into the food even if it is adequately covered? Almost 40% of food born infectious diseases are caused by humans through their hands and 10 million people are reported to be affected by such food infection every year. 80% of all incidences of infection related illnesses are attributed to the hands of persons who spread them through contact with many surfaces depositing the pathogens in the process. Such deposited colonies can stay dormant for 3 months looking for opportune time and conditions to spread. 30-50% of all persons, though looking healthy carry the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus which can cause a range of diseases. They are found usually on the skin or under the nose or in the mouth. Though they are not generally harmful to those carrying them under normal circumstances, a break in the skin,a burn or other injury allows this bacteria to penetrate the body's defense and cause infection. Imagine this particular bacteria staying dormant in hosts' body for years together without causing any harm but infecting others more susceptibility.

Food borne S.aureus infection can be mild in many cases resulting in gastroenteritis which may last 8-24 hours with out much complications. But endotoxin and exotoxin produced by some strains of S.aureus can have serious consequences unless their population is controlled through antibiotic drug therapy. Septic arthritis, endocarditis and pneumonia can be facilitated by S.aureus under certain circumstances. Multi drug Resistant S.aureus, better known as MRSA is a major concern because of the difficulties in treating infections caused by them. Its prevalence in western countries is thought to be due to practice of using antibiotics extensively by the meat industry, causing the drug resistance over a period of time. Almost 2 billion people in the world are carriers of S.aureus out of which 53 million carry the MRSA version.

WHO and medical community world over have now recognized "hand washing" as the most dependable preemptive procedure for avoiding spread of microbial infections. According to the hand washing protocol being advocated, the hands are placed under water, soap is applied, hands are rubbed together for at least 20 seconds, washing in fresh tepid running water all parts of the hand including palms, wrists, back of hands and under the nails, removing all adhering dirt from wrist down to finger tips pointing down wards. Drying with clean disposable tissue paper will remove the bacteria almost completely. Washing of hands is a must every time after touching body parts, using rest rooms, coughing, sneezing, after handling money, garbage, touching dirty surfaces and picking up things from the floor.

One can only wonder as to how many people in a country like India practice hand washing and probably many infectious diseases could be prevented if such good habits are inculcated from early childhood at home and in schools. On the other hand Indians might have built enough immunity to S.aureus from early childhood due to progressive and frequent exposure to contaminated environment where most of them are brought up, hand washing practice not widely in vogue, sucking of thumbs and fingers during early childhood and less protected food handling practices. Probably S.aureus infection assumes serious visible proportion only with over protected populations living in near sterile environments.


No comments: