Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Sketchy Science Storybook Corner Presents: Curious Geoff and the Antibiotic-Resistant Superbug

The following is loosely based on actual events... But we made up a lot of the non-sciencey bits.

“Why didn’t you see a doctor sooner?!” exclaimed the man in the yellow hat.

“Mind your own business.” Geoff replied in his increasingly raspy voice to the only other person in the waiting room. He didn’t even know this guy and after five minutes of conversation he was getting a lecture on personal health? There were days when the usually agreeable illustrator for the 6th most popular Canada-based, illustrated science blog on the internet would have tolerated unsolicited advice, but this wasn’t one of them.

What had begun as a tickle in his throat had progressed over the past month to become an omni-present burden on his existence. Every swallow and syllable he spoke ignited an intense fire just below his jawline and Geoff had had enough. Fortunately he didn’t have to deal with this guy or his questionable fashion sense anymore because the doctor’s receptionist stood and called his name before a fist-fight could break out.

“Why didn’t you come see me sooner?!” The doctor asked. Still holding the recently-used tongue depressor in her right hand, the question seemed all the more accusatory. Geoff didn’t really have an answer aside from his hope that whatever was wreaking havoc on his esophagus would work itself out.

“I’m going to give you some antibiotics. Make sure you finish the bottle, even if you start to feel better.” The doctor scribbled something onto her prescription pad, ripped off the page and handed it to Geoff in the manner of an irritated police officer writing a ticket to someone caught speeding home to watch the season finale of The Biggest Loser. That is to say, she was both irritated and disappointed.

Over the next week, Geoff dutifully obeyed the doctor’s orders. Twice a day he summoned his courage and drank a tablespoon of the goopy, greyish antibiotic. "At least it came with a cool spoon shaped like an alligator" he thought to himself. 

Pretty soon things appeared to be getting back to normal. Inside Geoff's body the medicine was beginning to turn the tide in his favour. Antibiotics can either kill bacterial cells directly by impairing their ability to build cell walls or they can smother them, binding to receptors on the outside of the intruder cell and stopping it from interacting with the body. Geoff’s medicine did the latter and it did it quite effectively… That is, until the weekend rolled around.

Earlier in the week, Geoff had considered cancelling his planned weekend adventure to the maple syrup factory with his friends. Now that he was feeling better, temptation got the best of him. By Friday he could hardly believe he had ever been sick. He loaded up his suitcase, got on the bus and rode to meet his friends. As he closed the door and turned the key to lock it, the half full bottle of medicine sitting on the bathroom counter was the furthest thing from his mind.

By Monday night, the game had changed. As Geoff indulged his sweet tooth with his friends, the bacteria in his throat had regrouped. Many of them had been killed the previous week by the medicine, but those that were left were the strongest of the strong. There had only been a few of them left when Geoff got on the bus, but in the absence of the killing blow from the medicine, they had multiplied. To make matters worse, a new bacteria had found it’s way into Geoff’s throat over the weekend. It was a largely harmless bacteria but it contained a piece of DNA that helped it form a smooth, slippery outer membrane. 

This new bacteria made friends with the remaining disease causing bacteria and (as bacteria sometimes do) they traded DNA. Now the bacteria that the medicine had been meant to kill had mutated so that the antibiotic could not stick to them properly.

The new and improved super-bug used its good fortune to regroup.

Things had gone from bad to worse.

When he got home, Geoff resumed taking his medicine, but it was too late. The super-bacteria continued to multiply, unimpeded. He went back to the doctor who prescribed stronger antibiotics, but before long Geoff found himself in the hospital.

The next few weeks were rough on his body, but fortunately he was a young, physically fit person and over time his body was able to fight off the infection. He lost a bunch of weight and had a miserable time (despite having all the jello he could eat), and as he left the hospital he vowed to never let a bug turn super on him again.

Geoff would never know it, but the reason that his infection was able to mutate was because of the steak he enjoyed on Friday night. Many farmers around the world use antibiotics to help their livestock grow larger, faster. Over-using antibiotics gives bacteria more chances to evolve resistance to them. That is exactly what happened with the bacteria that eventually traded DNA with Geoff’s infection.

From that day on, Geoff did his part to combat the evolution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. He didn’t take antibiotics when he had the cold or a flu because he knew that these infections were caused by viruses and not bacteria. Viruses aren’t alive in the same way bacteria are, so antibiotics are useless against them. He also stopped using antibacterial hand soap and instead used alcohol-based hand sanitizer which bacteria can’t evolve resistance to.  Over many years, Geoff’s good behaviour influenced his friends to do likewise. Eventually even farmers got the message and stopped needlessly pumping animals full of medicine that could have been used to help creatures that were actually sick.

And they all lived happily ever after… Except they got sick a lot from viral infections, but that’s another story.