Riddle Me This: What’s an Infectious Disease?

Infectious disease?

I came across this brain-teaser in David Quammen’s masterful book Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic.

In general terms, we’re pretty comfortable with what a disease is. And we certainly know the difference between an attack by bacteria versus that of a lion, say. But not so fast. Here’s Mr. Quammen’s take:

Infectious disease is all around us…. It’s one of the basic processes that ecologists study…. Predators are relatively large beasts that eat their prey from the outside. Pathogens (disease-causing agents, such as viruses) are relatively small beasts that eat their prey from within. Although infectious disease can seem gristly and dreadful, under ordinary conditions it’s as natural as what lions do to wildebeests and zebras, or what owls do to mice.

So are a pack of wolves – or human cannibals – the functional equivalent of a bunch of pneumonia bugs?

Perhaps after dinner and over a glass of wine we could discuss it. Oh wait … how would we characterize what we just did to that side of beef?

What’s safer: a stint in your local hospital or a stint in the Iraq war?

A nursing group in Texas sent us a compelling (disturbing?) chart on hospital safety which we’ve posted below (original source: http://www.accelerated-nursing.net/hospital-safety/ ). Notice how it refers to preventable deaths and that a full 25% of these are due solely to infections you pick up simply because you’re in a hospital.

And no, this isn’t just a U.S. phenomenon. In fact, Canadian numbers may be worse. For example, a CBC Fifth Estate investigation found that about 1 in 10 patients admitted to hospital in Canada contract hospital-acquired infections (versus 1 in 25 in the U.S.), and that between 8,000 and 12,000 of these patients die from them each year.

So it turns out that we’re not as safe in hospitals as we think. But that we’re even less safe in our hospitals than in the entire Iraq theater of war … what’s going on?

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