|MadSci Network: Microbiology|
What is the deadliest bacteria, and is there a cure?
There is no one specific bacterial species that can be considered the deadliest. Many types of bacteria can be fatal to human beings. However, the vast majority (99.99+%) of bacteria are not only harmless, but can generally be considered helpful.
For those few bacteria that are harmful to us, "deadliest" can be answered in several ways. If "deadliest" means rapid death, then the bacteria that cause types of meningitis (inflammation of linings of the brain and nerves) are very quickly fatal, usually within 24 hours if not treated promptly. However, if caught in time, they are usually very amenable to antibiotic treatment. Other bacteria make and secrete toxins. The bacteria themselves are not a problem, but their toxins can be fatal very rapidly. One example involves species of the bacteria Clostridium which secrete toxins causing fatal paralyses termed botulism and tetanus, two different but related diseases from two different species of Clostridium. In this case, killing the bacteria after it has secreted the toxin does nothing to reverse the toxinís effect. The only treatment once the toxin has acted is to physically provide breathing support for the person affected. In such a case, the best "cure" is to simply not ingest the bacteria and their toxin in the first place. Other bacteria can also be deadly to most persons infected. For example, if untreated, bubonic plague (Yersinia pestis) and cholera (Vibrio cholera) are almost invariably fatal within a very few days if untreated. The former can be treated by an antibiotic very effectively while the latter can be treated by an antibiotic coupled with fluid replacement. Indeed, in poor countries, the only economical means of treating cholera may be fluid replacement only. Other diseases caused by bacteria may take much longer to develop but be just as fatal. For example, tuberculosis (Mycobacterium tuberculosis) is a very slowly developing disease that may take weeks to years to finally kill the infected person. It can be treated with antibiotics, but with difficulty. One current problem is that strains of Mycobacterium tuberculosis and other related Mycobacterium species are rapidly becoming resistant to all common antibiotics, leaving us with no good treatments.
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