Winning Isn't Everything: A Review of Have Bacteria Won?

I recently finished the next infectious disease book on my long list -- I think I've been reading these books non-stop since 1996 and probably will forever -- University of Aberdeen microbiology Professor Hugh Pennington's Have Bacteria Won? 

This short book, part of the New Human Frontiers series, was published in 2016 and is packed with a lot of good information and narrative from an expert in the field. Being written by a UK expert is a large value to the American reader as it is recounts many UK-based infectious disease outbreaks that may not be so familiar but nonetheless contain important lessons. 

His introductory chapter is entitled "Why We Are so Worried About Bacteria" and provides an overview of some headline-grabbing infectious diseases. The most popularized UK-based outbreak (which is non-bacterial in origin), of course, is bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, Mad Cow Disease) and its human form, vCJD, which Dr. Pennington details noting that no new human cases have been diagnosed in those born after 1989. In addition to BSE, the chapter highlights other important infectious diseases such as necrotizing fasciitis (flesh-eating bacteria)  that, despite media attention, has been known to medicine since at least 1924.

In the chapter's treatment of Ebola, Dr. Pennington includes a very revealing and interesting quote from the court proceedings against heroic nurse Kaci Hicox who was forcibly -- and unjustifiably-- detained by government agents:

“the court is fully aware of the misconceptions, misinformation, bad science and bad information being spread from shore to shore in our country with respect to Ebola. The Court is fully aware that people are acting out of fear and that this fear is not entirely rational. However, whether that fear is rational or not, it is present and it is real Respondent's actions at this point, as a health care professional, need to demonstrate her full understanding of human nature and the real fear that exists. She should guide herself accordingly.”

The quote, from a Maine judge, shows just how far we've fallen that despite acknowledging the irrationality of the mob in their fear of Ebola the judge still advises Hicox to placate it!

Other aspects I particularly concepts that I found particularly notable included: "sewer socialism", a defense of pasteurization (unpasteurized products have a 150-fold increased risk of being involved in outbreaks), the significance of mutant broiler chickens, "allowable" Salmonella levels in chocolate, the "trans-science" of influenza prediction, and Paul Ehrlich's work with pneumococcus and the quinine-derivative optochin in 1911 and its fate foretelling the modern antibiotic resistance crisis which he deems not a scientific problem but an anthropological one.

Have bacteria won? We know Pasteur said microbes would have the last word but reading Dr. Pennington's words is nonetheless highly recommended.