The question is similar to the child’s “Who is stronger – a whale or an elephant?” Bacteria, such as pathogenic strains of E. coli, Staphylococcus aureus or acinetobacters, claim many more lives than new viruses that appear every few years, kill several hundred or thousands of people and disappear. Of course, there is a story with the Spanish flu, which killed millions at the beginning of the 20th century. But then there was a war, the usual way of life changed, everything got mixed up. In addition, typhus, which was caused by the bacterium Salmonella, then also died like flies.
Most of the new exotic viruses had animals as their original hosts. Increasing human pressure on wildlife increases the number of contacts between humans and exotic animals – where they still remain. At first, these new viruses are highly pathogenic, that is, they greatly harm the health of the infected. But, having adapted to humans, they, as a rule, become less dangerous, because for a successful epidemic it is important not to kill the infected host, but to spread to as many individuals as possible.
For ordinary people, the likelihood of catching a bacterial infection that will be resistant to all major antibiotics is now much higher than contracting an exotic virus that has an outbreak in Africa or China.
But why, then, is there such a panic around new epidemics? And how do scientists come up with cures for unknown viruses?
The problem with viruses is that we do not know how to purposefully destroy them inside the patient. This is a fundamental difference from bacterial diseases, where antibiotics actually kill the pathogen. Therefore, the best way to prevent viral infections is to vaccinate people who are still healthy.
Modern molecular biology techniques make it possible to create potential vaccines against new viruses in six months or even less. However, then it will take several more years to prove the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine, to certify it, to introduce it into the vaccination schedule, to produce in sufficient quantities, and so on. By that time, everyone will forget about today’s virus, and another will appear. Therefore, the universal vaccination of the inhabitants of Europe and America with a still non-existent vaccine against the Wuhan virus is completely unnecessary. Although it is clear that the activity on such development is very beneficial for politicians, scientists, and industrialists who receive contracts for it.
If suddenly the number of people not vaccinated against old known viruses reaches the limit, we can return to “the blessed old days.” Then the measles virus will be transmitted from a sick person who has not yet been vaccinated, and many of them will die, because there is no medicine for this disease. But now we can identify new viruses in a matter of days and just as quickly develop methods for their diagnosis. So at least stocking up on popcorn and keeping track of the spread of the infection and the accompanying evolution of the virus is relatively easy.
And what then is the problem of creating new antibiotics too?
It is difficult and expensive. Basically, scientists seek to modify existing antibiotics. But this cannot be done indefinitely, sooner or later you have to look for new ones (pharmaceutical companies are reluctant to undertake this, such a project is risky in terms of financial investments: on average, the development of one successful foreign drug takes ten years and costs 2.6 billion dollars).
This very resistance in bacteria arises as a result of artificial selection – antibiotics are widely used in agriculture (up to 80% of all antibiotics are generally used to treat livestock, and about 97% were purchased without a prescription) in clinics, as well as by ordinary people in countries where they dispensed without a prescription. The number of bacteria sensitive to antibiotics is decreasing, the number of resistant bacteria is increasing (for example, the very first antibiotic, penicillin, is no longer used: bacteria have developed almost complete resistance to it).
So far, available antibiotics still work in most cases. But the ubiquitous spread of bacteria with resistance will lead to catastrophic consequences from the point of view of modern humans, because we will return to another blessed pre-antibiotic era – with extremely high infant mortality, mortality from nosocomial infections, simple wounds and the like.
Are there any rules of life for an ordinary person that will help protect themselves from viruses and bacteria and stop the emergence of new dangerous infections?
Everything is as usual: observe the rules of hygiene, avoid travel to exotic places, lead a measured and financially prosperous lifestyle – you need to have access to qualified doctors. And try to limit your use of antibiotics.