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Fear The Little Things

Andre Joshua T. Aniñon

It was 1346. While the streets flooded with sewage and waste, millions upon millions of people suffered with a disease much filthier than the town’s cesspools. Tender tumors sprouted on their bodies like seeds growing in a field, and—as if reflecting the hell they endured—their flesh gradually succumbed to a color like that of charcoal. These are the manifestations of the “bubonic plague”—a disease characterized by buboes, or swelling of the lymph nodes (especially in the armpit and groin); and gangrene, a blackening of the skin. The Black Death had arrived in Europe, and engulfed the continent in death and darkness.

No soul in the 14th century knew about Yersinia pestis—a bacterium carried by fleas infesting rats, and the causative agent of the Black Death. No one back then knew about microorganisms—things that cannot be seen with the naked eye—in general either. It wasn’t until 1677 when Antoni van Leeuwenhoek discovered tiny organisms (which he referred to as “animalcules”) upon inspecting droplets of water and his own feces under a microscope. However, he did not establish any link between microorganisms and disease.

Scholars from earlier centuries merely pinned the cause of the Black Death (and any other historical disease outbreaks) to Galen’s miasma theory—a belief which held miasma (Greek term for pollution), a noxious form of “bad air” (or “night air”) emanating from decaying matter, as the origin of the world’s deadliest epidemics. This theory was pushed out of scientific waters, however, when Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch sailed through the public in the 1800s with the germ theory—stating that disease was caused by microorganisms, and not through invisible waves of vapor as the miasma theory suggests.

If there’s something we can learn from the Black Death and Pasteur & Koch’s germ theory, it’s that danger doesn’t just come from things larger than us. Danger isn’t just found in dragons the size of chapels, or the monsters lurking in the shadows. It isn’t just in hurricanes wider than seas or flames that tower like hills. Danger can be microscopic, existing only in micrometers—and yet can equally be destructive. Such is the world of microorganisms, of life’s little things, and the dangers it possesses are to be feared.

Aside from the Black Death, many other epidemics, in history and in the present, are caused by these little creatures. Vibrio cholerae, the causative agent for cholera, has caused several outbreaks that killed millions—despite it being only 2-4 micrometers in length and 0.2-0.5 micrometers in width. Yersinia pestis is even much smaller than that, and it caused the world’s first true pandemic. Tuberculosis, a leading cause of morbidity and mortality worldwide, is caused by a microorganism. Pneumonia? Microorganism. STDs? Microorganism. Dengue fever? Microorganism.

Ever since these little fellas were made visible in people’s minds, researchers have gone in pursuit of finding a way to lessen their destructive power. One landmark of this journey can be pinned on 1874, when physician Ernest Duchesne noted that some molds (or fungi) were able to kill bacteria. This discovery laid the foundation for the breakthrough that was to come in 1928, when Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin—the first true antibiotic.

Many other antibiotic compounds have been synthesized since penicillin’s discovery, and many bacterial infections since then have raised their flag of surrender. With the advent of antibiotics, beating bacteria is just like reciting the alphabet. Just follow the doctor’s prescription, and their vacation in your paradise of cells will end in a matter of seven days.

However, the danger of microorganisms still remains. One must remember that bacteria are microscopic chameleons. If given the chance to adapt to an environment, they will do so for their survival. Antibiotic abuse is the precursor of such adaptation. Incomplete doses, improper administration, consumption when unnecessary—these are instances which embrace bacteria in nearlyopen cellular arms. Having a cough or cold can be viral in nature, and does not necessarily need antibiotic treatment. Just because the sickness disappears on the fourth day, doesn’t mean treatment can be ceased before the seventh. If bacteria are not completely killed, they adapt, they mutate, they resist. They can turn into “superbugs,” ala Super Saiyan style. Much like people, whatever doesn’t kill bacteria can only make them stronger.

According to a report by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention in the United States last January 14, a 70-year old woman died of a rare bacterial infection resistant to all 26 antibiotics available in the This presents an impending threat, as this superbug could grow all the more resistant, and could be transmitted to other societies. Despite modern medicine’s arsenal of treatments, the battalions of microorganisms are still very much dangerous. Even if humans already have a weapon against them, bacteria can still forge armor and deflect our attacks—if given the tools to do so.

Power, when met with resistance, is meaningless. Even colistin, the strongest antibiotic synthesized and the doctor’s last resort, is powerless when confronted with a superbug. Misuse of antibiotics crumbles our body’s defenses to dust, and builds up that of the microorganism’s. When a bacterial infection comes and the doctor prescribes you will good ‘ol antibiotics, remember the danger these little guys possess. Let’s not add to the power they already have.

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