The ugly bacteria
Bacteria are both good and bad but some are really, really ugly. These are the bacteria that cause the really horrible diseases, usually the ones that are very contagious, they pass from one person to the next, very quickly and very easily. A lot of the really ugly bacteria are also very serious and they used to kill a lot of people. Medicine has improved so that less people die now, but these are still not diseases that you would want to get!
The ugly bacteria usually contaminate the air (by coughing and sneezing) or water, things that you need to survive! Cholera is spread through contaminated drinking water while tuberculosis (TB) and pneumonia are spread by bacteria that are in the air. There have been lots of cholera and TB epidemics, where lots of people were sick with the same disease at the same time, but modern medicine and better hygiene means that these diseases don’t really happen in developed countries any more.
A disease that still frightens people is the Bubonic plague (sometimes known as the Black death). The plague is caused by a bacterium called Yersinia pestis. It killed millions of people, maybe half of the people living in all of Europe at the time, during the 14th century! Plague bacteria was carried by the fleas that live on mice and rats. Mice and rats lived everywhere people did at that time, because there were no proper toilets and people did not understand about hygiene. When the fleas bit humans, they passed on the bacterium and people got sick. About 6 out of every 10 people who got the plague died (that’s 60%!). The plague was also called the ‘black death’ because when people died, their faces turned black. The Bubonic plague is still around in the world, but it can be treated so it doesn’t spread like it used to.
Another disease that people were very frightened of is leprosy. Leprosy is caused by a rod-shaped bacterium called Mycobacterium leprae but it is not very contagious (it doesn’t spread very easily). This bacterium was discovered in 1873 in Norway and it was the first time a bacterium was seen to cause a disease in humans – before then, people thought that leprosy was caused by a curse! Leprosy kills nerves so people loose their sense of touch and feeling, they go numb. Parts of the body get injured and people can go blind, get terrible infections or deformities. People with leprosy were forced to live separately, away from their friends and families. They often died without ever seeing them again. Although leprosy still can’t be cured, it isn’t such a problem now because there are antibiotics that mean people can live normal lives with their families and friends.
A very ugly bacterium that is around and causing problems today is MRSA. This is methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus and causes an infection that is very difficult to cure. MRSA is resistant to penicillin, methicillin and many other antibiotics so there are very few defences against it. It is found in hospitals where people are weak because they are already suffering from other diseases or injuries. You can help to stop MRSA if you are visiting a hospital by making sure you follow all the rules to stop the spread of the disease – in particular, remember to always wash your hands.
Good hygiene and making sure you are fit and healthy will help your to avoid the ugly diseases and to recover from them if you are unlucky enough to catch them. Don’t give them a chance – keep yourself fit and healthy!
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