Infection Control Today - 03/2003: Microbe of the Month

Microbe of the Month
By Roger P. Freeman, DDS

Is it time for my close-up yet, Mr. B? Maybe soon, you say? It's been awhile, you know. I've been shelved since about 1977, relegated to an "assumption" in this age of "genom-e-try." It wasn't always like that. In fact, modesty permitting, I may be the most important virion you never heard much about. After all, I helped eradicate the greatest scourge in recorded history. I silenced the dreaded "pox."

Smallpox ... thought by many to be the "world's worst disease" and racking up billions of victims in its ancient wake, changed the course of history, sealing the fate of entire populations, scorching both rich and poor, monarch and serf. Fortunately for life as-you-know-it, in 1796, Dr. Jenner noticed the peaches and cream complexions of dairymaids (guys will be guys) compared to those of NCWs (or non-cow workers) in the local villages. Since there was no Estee Lauder at the time, he surmised that the maidens had somehow been protected by proximity to their vacca-vendors. So he used what turned out to be poxic cousin (that would be me) to inoculate a few pals, only to discover, voila--"immunity!" Later, Pasteur coined the word "vaccine" in honor of the occasion, and of course, the cows.

It took 150 years of political wrangling before the world really "got it!" (What else is new?) That'd be a billion or so deaths in the frittering. Due to heroic efforts by WHO (not "The Who") I ended my world tour 35 years later, bestowing upon cousin variola the distinction as the only disease eradicated by man. Me? They took what was left, stashed me in a couple freezers in Atlanta and Russia and threw away the keys. So they thought. Read "Demons in the Freezer" for my travel itinerary ...but leave the lights on.

I'm a complex little guy, usually confined to cattle, and like variolas maj and minor, a viral orthopox to my dumbbell-shaped core. Cosmetically, I lean toward brick-shaped, with my many proteins giving the appearance of a "mulberry." (Anyone have a clue what a mulberry looks like?). I can also be a pretty nasty playmate, in the young, aged or immunocomped, likely even to end-it-all for 1 per million ... good reason to be cautious about slathering me on your morning toast. But then, why drive on freeways, use cell phones or eat Twinkies if life was about zero risk? For a slightly rusty bifurcated needle or a really nice gift, whichever causes less scabbing, name me and the process that Dr. J blessed upon us.

Roger P. Freeman, DDS, is a dental infection control consultant and president of Infectious Awareables at The answers to last month's mystery microbe are: prion, bovine spongiform encephalopathy and variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (VCJD).

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