1928 was a happy year for humanity as this was the year that a nondescript mould called Penicillium notatum was found to have antibacterial properties. This mould would prove to be the first in a long line of what we now know as antibiotics. Antibiotics are a group of drugs that kill bacteria for us either by interfering with their cell wall, mucking up their DNA or messing with their metabolic processes so they cease to function. Unfortunately they do not affect viruses.
Before the discovery of antibiotics people died from all sorts of minor complaints such as small infected skin wounds (before penicillin1 in 9 skin infections killed people), mild burn infections, tooth abscesses and infected insect stings. Unfortunately, according to a recently published World Health Organisation report (http://www.who.int/drugresistance/documents/surveillancereport/en/), that time could be returning as more and more bacteria are laughing in the face of the antibiotics we use.
The natural world uses a marvellous tool to adapt to changing circumstances. It is called natural selection and it is based on genetic diversity. This means that when a disease comes along it rarely kills everyone. Some people will be naturally resistant to it. They will survive and breed and, before you know it, most people will be resistant and the disease will no longer kill people. Unfortunately the same is true for bacteria and antibiotics. In any given bacterial population some bacteria will be resistant to a given antibiotic. Using that antibiotic will kill off the sensitive bacteria, leaving the resistant ones behind to proliferate. This activity can be accelerated by increasing the use of antibiotics, especially when they are prescribed for conditions that cannot be resolved by antibiotic use, such as the common cold or flu, both of which are viruses and completely unaffected by antibiotics.
If you are prescribed antibiotics, to delay the onset of resistance appearing, it is vital to take your full dose and complete the prescription, even if you feel better ahead of time. Otherwise you have not killed the bacteria but only wounded them, allowing them the opportunity to strike back bigger and better than before.
It is also important to practice effective preventative medicine to minimise the number of times that antibiotics are needed. An example of this is gonorrhoea. More than one million people are infected with gonorrhoea around the world every day. Resistance of this bacterium to all antibiotics is becoming more and more common. Prevention is simple and obvious. All it requires is a condom. Preventative measures for other diseases can include vaccination, washing your hands with soap and water, wearing your protective gear at work, not allowing your pets to stick their tongues down your throat, washing your hands with soap and water, observing good hygiene when preparing food, washing your hands with soap and water, and sticking with bottled water if you are uncertain of the quality of the water supply. Oh, and did I mention washing your hands with soap and water?
Dr. F. Bunny
MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) is the latest disease in nature’s little bag of tricks, which could turn into the next pandemic and solve our population issues for us. It is closely related to SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), both belonging to the same virus family. But, while SARS appeared in Asia, MERS first popped up in Saudi Arabia in 2012. Since then all cases have been seen either in the Middle East or in people who have travelled to the Middle East. As of June 2014 we have had 697 cases of which 210 people have died. As usual symptoms have been flu-like.
This is quite a high case fatality rate but, like bird flu, the virus has not raced around the world killing a third of the world’s population because it is not easily transferred from person to person, yet.
Any time one of these new diseases pops up it requires quite a bit of detective work to try and determine where it came from and how it works. It will probably come as no surprise that bats are once again implicated, the virus having been found in Egyptian tomb bats, a name guaranteed to generate sympathy with a nervous public.
Intriguingly the virus has also been found in camels, a situation which has some similarities with Hendra virus in Australia. Hendra virus lives happily in bats, infects horses (and kills them) and then spreads from horses to humans. However, as yet, there are no recorded cases of MERS causing disease in camels (although a number of camels have died in the UAE recently of undetermined cause, so this situation may change) and we have only recently seen the first confirmed case of a human catching the disease from a camel. Most of the other cases have been in people who have had very close contact with other sufferers. Where they caught it originally is still open to speculation.
It makes me think that the practice of veterinary medicine may be more dangerous than first thought. While we are all aware of the wonderful things we can catch from our primate neighbours no one really believed there was anything worth catching from our more distant cousins, like horses. Twenty years ago you would not have thought twice about examining a snuffly horse. Two years ago you would not have thought twice about examining a camel.
Australia has the largest feral camel population in the world, but no human cases of MERS. Preliminary testing of 25 camels has failed to find any evidence of MERS, implying that the Middle East camels may have been infected from the tomb bats or that the virus appeared in Middle East camels after the Australian population was established.
The upshot of all this is that we have absolutely no idea where the next fun plague might be coming from. As I get older and more paranoid I am becoming increasingly more nervous about travelling on crowded trains, planes and buses, full of sneezing and coughing people. And I am starting to think that sport is much more enjoyable when viewed from the comfort of my living room than from one of those packed sporting stadiums. I can see the day coming when I refuse to venture outside without my biohazard suit on.
Paranoia aside, most viruses are transferred between us via the things we touch, such as door handles, coffee cups, pens, etc. The best way to prevent this is by washing your hands frequently, with soap and water. To do it properly, sing the Happy Birthday song through twice while you are soaping up your hands. Oh, and don’t kiss bats, camels or any other non-human life forms. And maybe not even the human life forms.
Dr. F. Bunny
Governments in Australia and internationally are coming round to the idea of taking a ‘triage approach’ to conservation, according to the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions (CEED). This involves agencies focusing available resources on saving as many endangered species as possible, rather than trying to save fewer ‘living dead’ species.
| A male superb parrot; this species is listed as threatened in Victoria and vulnerable in the Australian Capital Territory and New South Wales. The entire population may only be a few thousand birds.
Credit: Ron Knight
The concept of saving more species for the same cost, or triage, was proposed to the Australian Federal Government in 1999 by Professor Hugh Possingham, now Director of CEED.
Prof. Possingham says the NSW, Tasmanian and New Zealand governments have all adopted versions of conservation triage, and the Queensland and US governments are considering it.
‘Conservation triage is still a sensitive topic because it forces people to acknowledge that we don’t have enough resources to save all threatened species; that choices have to be made, even though we may not like making them,’ he says.
‘In an age of catastrophic decline in the Earth’s and Australia’s biodiversity, we need to acknowledge that the resources we are currently devoting to conservation are not going to save everything.
‘If that’s the case, you have to take a decision what you are going to save – and which species will most repay your efforts to save them. Otherwise you end up spending scarce resource on species you cannot save – and have too little left to save those you probably could have rescued.’
Associate Professor Michael McCarthy, deputy director of CEED, rejects the claims of some environmental groups that adopting a triage policy ‘makes extinction acceptable’.
‘It certainly doesn’t,’ Dr McCarthy says. ‘Instead it forces us to ask: can we save this animal? How much will it cost to do so? How important is it to its ecosystem? And does the community care enough about it to help in the fight to save it?
‘Importantly, triage is not about letting the most endangered species go extinct, it is wisely choosing those species which have the best chance of recovery, rationally accounting for cost and chance of success. The most threatened species may well be the ones that receive most investment.’
Dr McCarthy says triage forces society to acknowledge it is better to save the things it can, rather than devote scarce resources to those it cannot.
‘It also makes the decision about what to save a more public one, which requires society to take greater responsibility for it, instead of decisions being taken behind closed doors.’
Prof. Possingham says that, at a time of limited government funding for conservation, the public will have to shoulder a greater load if it cares about preserving species for its grandchildren.
‘We have some great examples where the community has rallied round to save particular species – an example is the public effort in southern Queensland to save the Richmond birdwing butterfly by replanting the native vines that it feeds and depends on,’ he says.
‘At the moment, governments don’t tell us which species they are not funding – only the ones they are,’ he notes. ‘Under triage you publish the priority funding tables, and the community can then decide where to help.
By Chirsty Hart-Harris
Posted Jun. 2, 2014 @ 12:02 pm
COLDWATER — Every year during the summer months, Waterworks park is filled with families enjoying the sun, company and the many ducks that frequent the park’s river. The best part is feeding the ducks. Although it is done with good intentions, feeding the duck bread and human food products can cause their organs to become engorged and fatty, which in turn can cause them to suffer from heart disease, liver problems and other health complications.
According to Duck rescue network, a informational organization specializing in duck rescues, “When wild ducks are fed human food (especially bread or crackers) their Bread also has very few nutrients, and can get compacted in a bird’s crop. Many rehabilitators see “bread-impacted crop” in sick and distressed park ducks.”
Bread is very low in protein and contains additives that wildfowl are not able to digest properly. Ducklings require vital nutrients during their crucial first weeks. If they are fed bread, they can experience splay leg, angel wing, slipped tendons and other growing defects.
Waterfowl at artificial feeding sites are often found to suffer from poor nutrition. In a natural setting they will seek out a variety of nutritious foods such as aquatic plants, natural grains, and invertebrates.
Sophia DiPietro, Biologist and Wildlife Rescuer at All Species Kinship in Battle Creek Mich., said, “There are healthier ways to feed wildlife without causing the harmful impacts of bread feeding. The most helpful time to feed birds is during winter-time when food sources are scarce.”
DiPietro suggests feeding them cracked corn, non-medicated poultry scratch and greens such as turnips or dandelion greens ripped into small pieces.
Feeding the ducks at the parks can be a fun experience for children especially. It can also cause issues to arise between the ducks and humans. As most frequenters of Waterworks park have witnessed, competition for each bread crumb is extremely high. Ducks may also become unnaturally aggressive towards each other and to humans. Some ducks, usually the younger ones, are unable to compete for the food and never learn to forage naturally.
Feeding the ducks also has the potential to creates an unnaturally high population of waterfowl and diseases can flourish in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions.
In addition, attracting ducks teaches them not to fear humans. This can be a problem as some “rehabilitators often see ducks purposefully chased by dogs and children, with injuries from dog bites or thrown rocks – or – all too often run over by cars,” said DRN.
DNR suggests substituting bread with “cheerios, grapes cut in half, a thawed bag of frozen peas or corn, or kale, romaine or other leafy greens (not iceberg lettuce).”
DiPietro said, “Say no to bread and yes to greens and grains instead.”