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David Manly
Freelance Science Journalist
Toronto Ontario CAN

David Manly is a freelance journalist who will blog about a wide range of topics that all fall under the umbrella of zoology and ecology. While his expertise lies with reptiles and amphibians, he has a wide array of knowledge and interest in all animal species - from the sponge to the great ape. He hopes you will enjoy his blog, as he plans to make it both entertaining and enjoyable (as well as fill it with interesting facts, tidbits, photos and videos).

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Friday, January 21, 2011

A few weeks ago, I went through all my old books in order to donate the ones I had read but would not want to read again. While perusing my immense collection, I came upon one of my favorite books that I read in the past year. While it is not always a happy book, it is both interesting and thought provoking.

My interest in the subject of microbiology started when I took a course in 4th year of my undergraduate degree, due in large part to my mother saying I would enjoy it and having a passive interest in how the so-called "lower organisms" worked.

Man, was I wrong.

I learned to love microbiology and learning about bacteria and viruses – how they work, how they kill, how they fight and how they die. It all interested me, and I soaked up all that information like a sponge.

If there would have been more microbiology courses at my university, I would have taken them and perhaps changed my thesis into something microbial. I still love learning about bacteria and viruses, and will take any opportunity to expand my existing knowledge base.

That is why I was thrilled to get an advanced copy of Maryn McKenna's new book SUPERBUG in early 2010, which deals with the development of MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus).

MRSA is what is known as a superbug, in that it is multiple-drug resistant and impressively deadly. It takes massive amounts of drugs with often serious side-effects to even have a slim chance of beating it once it has taken hold.

MRSA - Courtesy of
MRSA - Courtesy of

While it was historically known as a disease that only occurred in hospitals in people that were already suffering from a weakened immune system – that is no longer the case. A new and completely different strain has arisen that affects people who have not had any contact with hospitals. It is known as community-acquired MRSA, and is surprisingly lethal.

McKenna's style is aptly suited to this type of book, as there is a lot of medical jargon that requires a deft hand to explain to people with little to no knowledge in that particular area. This is accomplished through what I can only describe as a massive amount of interviews and research with individuals who have been affected by MRSA. It is sometimes difficult to read, but the best things often are.

This book raises a lot of issues regarding the sanitary procedures performed at hospitals, the over-prescription of antibiotics in both people and animals, and the sheer speed in which MRSA can adapt.

Reading this book may seem like some sort of scare tactic, and it is. But it is the sort of thing people NEED to hear.

The best way to do this is to let the people whose lives have been affected speak for themselves, and McKenna realized this and only breaks away from a narrative for context. Simply put, it is a superbly written science book that reads like a novel.

I don't want to spoil any of the surprises lurking within the book, and there are many regarding the health care industry, misplaced government spending and agricultural practices that would shock you.

There are also parts of this book which may be difficult to read if you are squeamish, specifically where she describes the various symptoms that people infected with MRSA had to deal with. And, not all the people you meet throughout the book survive, as MRSA is an indiscriminate killer.

SUPERBUG is a very impressive book that has some very important lessons to teach us about microbial evolution, and the huge effect it can have on the human population. It is as thrilling as any fiction you have ever read, but more shocking because it is all true. You should definitely pick it up if you have any interest in microbiology, the evolution of bacterial resistance or the fight to prevent an epidemic.

As well, be sure to follow Maryn McKenna on Twitter (@marynmck)!

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Thomas Joseph
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When I was a clinical microbiologist (a medical technologist/clinical laboratory scientist by degree), we had to do clinical rotations our last semester before graduation. Each Friday in my micro rotation I'd sit down with the lab director and we'd talk about microbiology ... what I did in the lab, why we did things the way we did, the state of the field, and its future. I remember very clearly when talking about antibiotic resistance him saying the following: The last line of defense is vancomycin. When bugs become resistant to vancomycin, we'll be in a world of hurt. When it becomes commonplace, we'll be back in an age where antibiotics didn't even exist.

That time is fast approaching.

As for the links to agriculture, don't get me started. They're my customers, but they're the worst offenders when it comes to a whole lot of resistance issues (antibiotic and pesticide).

David Manly
Freelance Science Journalist
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Thomas, everything you say is true (sadly).

I have friends who are doctors and dentists, and they get approached all the time by people asking for antibiotics. "No," they say, "if you have a virus, antibiotics don't do anything." But what does the patient reply with?
"If you don't give them to me, I'll find someone else who will."

It is a sad and sorry state of affairs when this happens.

I remeber sitting down with my microbiology professor, and talking about resistance after learning the mechanisms in which it is acheived. It's not all doom and gloom YET, but with all the antibiotics being pumped into food, water and misuse of prescribed antibiotics ... that time is coming.

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