Clearly, significant battles have been won. But some public health victories have been confined to the richer countries of the world. Treatable diseases still kill millions of people, simply for lack of sufficient funds. In developing countries many people still lack adequate sanitation, health care, and access to safe water. Fulfilling these basic needs has become more difficult on account of massive migrations of people from the countryside to the megacities of the developing world. As a result of such factors, the world’s poor suffer what the World Health Organization calls a “disproportionate share of the burden of disease.”
Shortsighted selfishness is the principal cause of this health imbalance. “Some of the world’s worst infectious killers seem distant,” states the book Man and Microbes. “Some of these are limited entirely or mainly to poor tropical and subtropical regions.” Since wealthy developed countries and pharmaceutical companies may not benefit directly, they begrudge allocating funds for the treatment of these diseases.
Irresponsible human behavior is also a factor in spreading disease. In no way is this harsh reality better illustrated than in the case of the AIDS virus, which spreads from one person to another through body fluids. Within a few years, this pandemic has swept across the globe.
Kinds of Germs
Viruses are the tiniest germs. They are the cause of common illnesses such as colds, flu, and sore throats. Viruses also cause terrible diseases such as polio, Ebola, and AIDS.
Bacteria are one-celled organisms so simple that they lack a nucleus and generally have only one chromosome. Bacteria inhabit our bodies by the trillions, mostly in our digestive tract. They help us to digest our food and are the primary source of vitamin K, necessary for the clotting of blood.
“Staphylococcus aureus” bacteria
Only about 300 out of some 4,600 listed species of bacteria are considered pathogens (disease causing). Still, bacteria are the source of a long list of diseases in plants, animals, and humans. In humans these diseases include tuberculosis, cholera, diphtheria, anthrax, tooth decay, certain kinds of pneumonia, and a number of sexually transmitted diseases.
Protozoans, like bacteria, are single-celled organisms, but they may have more than one nucleus. Included are amoebas and trypanosomes as well as the parasite that causes malaria. About one third of living species are parasites—there are some 10,000 different kinds—although only a few of these parasites cause disease in humans.
“Giardia lamblia” protozoan
Fungi too can cause illness. These organisms have a nucleus and form tangled mats of filaments. The most common infections are ringworm, such as athlete’s foot, and candidiasis (Candida). Serious fungal infections usually afflict only people whose defenses have been weakened by malnutrition, cancer, drugs, or viral infections that suppress the immune system.
However, before you rush to your doctor and ask for a supply, consider the down side.* Antibiotics, when used improperly, can do you more harm than good. This is because antibiotics work by attacking and destroying bacteria in the body. But they do not always destroy all the harmful bacteria; certain strains of bacteria withstand the attack.
However, the resistant bacteria survive. But now they no longer must compete for nutrients and territory with fellow microbes. They are free to reproduce unchecked. Since a single bacterium can multiply into over 16 million bacteria within a single day, it does not take long before the person again becomes ill. Now, however, he or she is infected by a strain of bacteria resistant to the drug that was supposed to kill it. These bacteria can also infect other people and in time mutate again to become resistant to other antibiotics.
Penicillin, for example, was once highly effective in knocking out infection. Now, partly because of increasingly resistant strains of bacteria, drug companies market several hundred different varieties of penicillin.
If you really need antibiotics, make sure they are prescribed by a qualified doctor and are obtained from a legitimate source. Do not pressure your doctor into quickly prescribing antibiotics—he or she may want you to have lab tests to make sure that the one prescribed is the right one for your illness.
It is also important for you to take the right dose for the right length of time. You should take the entire course of antibiotics, even if you feel better before it is finished.
Patients can help by remembering the following: Initially, try such remedies as drinking lots of fluids, getting needed rest, and gargling with salt and warm water if you have a sore throat.
Logically, the best way to reduce disease and its spread is to do whatever is necessary to keep healthy.
What can you do to avoid getting sick?
Measures to Avoid Getting Sick
1. Do your best to obtain the following three things: proper nutrition, sufficient exercise, and adequate rest.
2. Practice personal hygiene. Authorities emphasize hand washing as the single most effective procedure to avoid getting ill and to keep from passing infection on to others.
3. Ensure the safety of the food you and your family eat. Be especially conscious that your hands as well as the area where meals are prepared are clean. Also, be sure that the water used to wash your hands and food is clean. Since germs flourish in food, cook meats thoroughly. Store and chill food properly.
4. In lands where serious disease is transmitted by flying insects, limit your nighttime or early-morning outdoor activity when these insects are most active. And regularly use protective netting.
5. Vaccines can help train your immune system to fight off some germs that are common where you live.
Use of Antimicrobials
1. Consult a health professional before buying or taking any antibiotic or antimicrobial. Direct-to-consumer promotions often benefit the seller more than the buyer.
2. Don’t press your doctor for an antibiotic prescription. If you do, he may give you one only because he fears losing you as a patient. Colds, for example, are caused by viruses, and antibiotics do not cure colds. Taking an antibiotic when you have a virus may suppress helpful bacteria, perhaps allowing resistant ones to breed.
3. Don’t insist on the latest medicine—it may not be the best for you and may cost you far more than is necessary.
4. Learn about any medication from a reliable source: What is it for? What are the possible side effects? What are its drug interactions and other factors that might make ingesting it dangerous?
5. If the antibiotic medication is truly appropriate, you are generally encouraged to take the full course that is prescribed, even if you feel better before you finish taking it all. The last portion helps ensure that all of the infection is gone.
*Insecticides are poisons, but so are drugs. Both have proved to be helpful as well as harmful. While antibiotic drugs may kill harmful germs, these drugs also kill beneficial bacteria.