Sunday, October 22, 2006

Losing the battle

According to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released this Thursday hospitals need to step up efforts to prevent infections with drug-resistant "superbugs," which are becoming more and more of a threat to patients, the U.S.

The death toll from hospital acquired infections is larger than most people think. Infections caught in U.S. hospitals now kill 90,000 people a year. This is now more than mortality due to breast cancer (about 40,000 per year) and road accidents (also about 40,000 per year).

In a separate story wounded British troops returning from Iraq have been linked by government scientists to outbreaks of a rare strain of Acinetobacter baumannii, a bacteria that is resistant to antibiotics. At one hospital in Birmingham in 2003 the bacteria went on to infect 93 people, 91 of whom were civilians.

The bacteria is also a concern in the US army, where it has been identified in more than 240 military personnel since 2003, killing five.

Antibiotic resistance is a fine illustration of evolution in action and the conditions and speed under which resistance appears illustrates a number of important features of natural selection.

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Two miles underground

Bacteria don't make it onto the front page of the Chronicle that often - unless they are killing people. Friday's paper has news of the discovery of microbes existing two miles down in the fractured rock of a South African gold mine - a lightless pool of hot, pressurized salt water that stank of sulfur and noxious gases.

Using geologically produced hydrogen and sulfur for energy, such bacteria offer insights into the origin of life and the communities of bacteria that must have existed on the early earth before the atmosphere became oxygen rich. The newly discovered bacteria are distantly related to the Firmicutes division of microbes that exist near undersea hydrothermal vents.

Press reports followed a paper in Science last week.