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

March 1, 2003

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 alwayslike that. In fact, modesty permitting, I may be the most important virion younever heard much about. After all, I helped eradicate the greatest scourge inrecorded history. I silenced the dreaded "pox."

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 alwayslike that. In fact, modesty permitting, I may be the most important virion younever heard much about. After all, I helped eradicate the greatest scourge inrecorded history. I silenced the dreaded "pox."

Smallpox ... thought by many to be the "world's worst disease" andracking up billions of victims in its ancient wake, changed the course ofhistory, sealing the fate of entire populations, scorching both rich and poor,monarch and serf. Fortunately for life as-you-know-it, in 1796, Dr. Jennernoticed the peaches and cream complexions of dairymaids (guys will be guys)compared to those of NCWs (or non-cow workers) in the local villages. Sincethere was no Estee Lauder at the time, he surmised that the maidens had somehowbeen protected by proximity to their vacca-vendors. So he used what turned outto 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 "gotit!" (What else is new?) That'd be a billion or so deaths in thefrittering. Due to heroic efforts by WHO (not "The Who") I ended myworld tour 35 years later, bestowing upon cousin variola the distinction as theonly disease eradicated by man. Me? They took what was left, stashed me in acouple freezers in Atlanta and Russia and threw away the keys. So they thought.Read "Demons in the Freezer" for my travel itinerary ...but leave thelights on.

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

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