Thursday, August 7, 2014

Tiny Terrorists: Viruses and Bacteria

An outbreak of Ebola in Liberia. A toxic algae bloom creating bacteria which poisoned the water supply in Toledo Ohio with microcystin . These two topics made national news this past week, causing terror in people both internationally and regionally. Both situations were caused by tiny microbes that are invisible to the naked eye.

It is understandable why these news stories can cause  intense fear. It’s hard to fight something that one can’t see. The thought of the spread of Ebola can be particularly frightening to some because as of right now, the mortality rate is very high (reportedly near 90%) and there is no sure cure or vaccine. The 400,000 people in the Toledo, Ohio area without water for several days had to wonder if the contamination in the water could be fixed and if their water would be usable again. The millions of people who live on the shores of Lake Erie in the United States and Canada also had reason to be concerned as the problem could potentially affect the entire region.

But there is no need for panic. There is, however, a need for action.

Work is underway to both contain the spread of Ebola in the outbreak area. The experimental medication used on one of the Ebola patients who was brought back to Atlanta Georgia for care does bring a glimmer of hope. Ebola is not an airborne pathogen, and is transmitted by bodily fluids, so as long as great care is taken while caring for the sick, the risk of spreading the virus is low. The danger with Ebola is that one may not know they have been infected, with the incubation period taking between days and weeks. As the outbreak is concentrated in one area in Africa, people can simply avoid traveling in the region. My biggest concern is someone being infected traveling OUT of the area before they realize they are infected.

The toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie is a more immediate concern to me, but still should not panic anyone. The algae problem in Lake Erie has been an ongoing problem for many years. I live in Northeast Ohio only miles from the Lake Erie shores, and the area gets a lot of drinking water from the central basin of Lake Erie, not near Toledo.  But the concern over the algae affecting all the basins of Lake Erie is real. The algae growth continues to explode due to fertilizer and sewage runoff into Lake Erie primarily from the agricultural areas in the western end of the state of Ohio. The problem became serious in Toledo as their water is drawn from the shallowest end of the lake, and unusual weather conditions pushed the algae bloom westward and concentrated it even closer to the city’s water intakes. While weather was a factor, it is not the underlying problem. I can understand why no one wants to curb agriculture in Ohio, but clearly steps must be taken to stop using Lake Erie as an unlimited dumping ground for runoff from agriculture. Ohioans like me who live in more urban areas and get water from deeper areas of Lake Erie are safer but still not immune to the dangers of toxins from algae. Ohio legislators, working in tandem with those from Canada, should immediately work to place controls on what goes into the precious resource that is Lake Erie. Fertilizer runoff and sewage runoff may not seem as bad as the industrial pollutants which affected Lake Erie in the 1960s, but the effect is still the same. These agents are contributing to poisoning the lake and must be curbed or stopped.

These tiny terrorists - viruses and bacteria -  can only win if we let them. Human-made problems such as toxic algae blooms are fixable by humans. And even if a virus like Ebola can’t be completely eradicated right now, the best defense is a good offense. The worst thing we can do is panic.

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