I mentioned before that I often have my posts mostly written in my head before I ever sit down to type them out. And indeed, though I hadn’t had a chance to actually sit at a computer yet, I had a science post all planned for today, based on an article I ran across last week. I think that will wait for tomorrow, though, after reading this post over at Terra Sigillata, where Abel writes about the sudden death of a 23-year-old brother of a former lab intern from a staph infection.
I sometimes get asked why I “waste my time” studying infectious disease, when they don’t cause nearly the mortality burden that “chronic” diseases do here in the U.S. And yes, diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular disease cause more deaths in the U.S. than infections do. Yes, these deaths, too, can be sudden and unexpected, and of course, are frequently tragic for the loved ones involved. But for me, there is an added dimension to infectious diseases that make them both frightening (in their often sudden onset, potential transmission to others, and interaction with the host) as well as fascinating to investigate. Abel’s story has an added dimension, in that the brother’s cancer treatment left him immunocompromised, and likely contributed to his death from infection–but even healthy people can quickly succumb to infectious disease, and as Abel mentions, anything we do seems inadequate. Not enough money, not enough research, not enough compassion to go around.
What still amazes me is how quickly an otherwise healthy person who is transiently immunosuppressed can die so precipitously from a bacterial infection. It makes me wonder why Big Pharma hasn’t more aggressively tried to tackle this problem, or whether there are challenges that preclude them from doing so. It makes me want to take a tutorial from Tara or Revere or someone at our School of Public Health to learn more, and maybe even get into ID (infectious diseases, not intelligent design) research.
I can’t speak much on the Big Pharma issue, but Abel’s post did make me stop for just a moment. Obviously, I work on infectious diseases. I work on pathogens that aren’t necessarily the leading causes of mortality in this country, but ones that I find interesting for a number of reasons. To do this, I have to try to justify my research to agencies with limited money, working to show why my species are worthy of a monetary investment–and I have to do this without eloquent and touching stories like Abel’s.
However, this doesn’t mean that I, personally, have to be quite as unfeeling. I my freezer, I have around 100 isolates from invasive disease caused by Streptococcus agalactiae. While it is easy just to think of them as numbers and strains, they are much more than that. They are one person’s horrible pain from a destructive skin infection, or a wound that just wouldn’t heal due to complications from diabetes, or another person’s pain from the loss of their newborn child (since group B streptococcus is a major cause of neonatal meningitis and death). Each pathogenic strain often represents a life changed, or a life lost. And though these are discussed in the scientific literature in dry, clinical terms, that doesn’t mean that those of us who do the research, or write the papers, aren’t touched on some level by the real patients who’ve suffered–or even died–from the pathogen we research.
It’s easy for critics to be cynical about scientists and doctors, and our motives for doing what we do. Clearly, we need to make a living, and that living depends on being paid for our work. And undoubtedly, there are people who abuse their positions as a scientist or a medical practitioner. But there are also those who are simply touched by the suffering brought on by various diseases, and want to do some small part to alleviate that suffering, even if we know it won’t stem that feeling of inadequacy in the face of so much human illness.