Infection Control Today - 06/2003: The Real Unsung Heroes

The Real Unsung Heroes

By Roger P. Freeman, DDS

Toa microbe, "awe" is just a y-aw-n with training wheels! Shock and awe.How about a dollar for every time we've heard that phrase in the past fewmonths? Already the keystone of GWII lexicon, S & A proved an apt, ifsomewhat misjudged description for the recent conflict. No matter thepolitics--elephant or donkey, right or left, Fox or CNN, lifetime subscriber toAl Jezeera--the facts do speak. Coalition troops shocked the world with theirspeed and might, and the men and women carrying out their mission left us in aweof their courage, skill and devotion to duty. Not unlike a day in infectioncontrol, actually.

Nothing short of microbe marines, infection control practitioners (ICPs)fight a different war. Different mission, different enemy (for the most part),but so many similar challenges: prepare, seek out, destroy, rebuild, protect,prevent. The biggest difference? Those "lucky" troops had only tocontend with a maniac, his nutty sons and the Republican Guard--a piece of cake!The ICP battles endlessly on two fronts: first, combating a microscopic enemysmaller than Uday's IQ, one that giggles at 2,000-pound bombs, smirks (if it hadlips) at Patriots, regroups in minutes, and bulks up to rise another day,another way; second, facing blindside firefights from the horsemen--apathy,economy, pique and sloth--with not even a stitch of help from night-goggles! Nowthat's a battle, mate!

Unsung and occasionally unstrung, the ICP engages a conflict thathistory-as-scorekeeper proves can only be contained at best, never won. Theenemy is as old as time, has endless resources, the force of nature on its side,and doesn't care a lick about elaborate palaces or gilded toilet fixtures. Can'teven bribe the little buggers. Rapid deployment of the typical arsenal--steam,heat, chems, nukes, Foreman grills--may send some of them limping, but rarely(think variola) will they go away. Age-old foes like mycobacterium, plasmodium,plague and influenza team up with newbies like HIV, resistant Staph and Strep topose formidable enemies. And how 'bout that West Nile thing, not to mentionoutbreak d'annee, SARS.

Comparing the Saddamati to these para-microbes is like comparing MichaelJordan to your brother-in-law, or your Carrera (think big) to a Segway! Andthrough it all, the ICP is in the eye of the storm, where there's always plentyof sand obscuring the action, the players, the victims and often, the victories.In the last analysis, there are no toppled monuments, no flag raisings, noticker-tape homecomings, not even some good-natured looting. Just another day atthe "office."

Having said all that, take it from someone with a nose to the windowpane, onewho used to think "surveillance" was two guys in an unmarked car withdoughnuts: ICPs may be unsung, but the view, at least from this bridge, speaksto heroes. Awesome!

Dr. Roger P. Freeman is a retired veteran of 30 years in private andinstitutional dental practice. He has witnessed and participated in majorchanges in delivery of hygienic dental services, and has proactivelyparticipated in raising public awareness about infection control and diseasetransmission issues. From his columns on Microbe of the Month, it is alsoobvious he has been seriously affected by years of inhaling tooth dust, skewinghis otherwise perfect perception of the world. Freeman can be reached at