Monday, December 17, 2007

We Never Learn

In 1876 kudzu was imported from Japan and promoted as a forage crop and ornamental plant. Starting in the 1930s the government encouraged farmers to plant kudzu to reduce soil erosion. Unfortunately, kudzu quickly grew out of control and the USDA declared it a pest weed in 1953.

Similarly, cotton thistle was introduced to the US as an ornamental plant in the late 1800s and quickly became a noxious weed. Cotton thistle can sometimes form tall, dense, impenetrable stands, creating an impenetrable barrier to humans and animals.

Diffuse knapweed, on the otherhand, was introduced accidentally in the early 1900s from contaminated seeds. It can damage the mouth and digestive tract of animals that feed on it and it greatly reduces crop yield. The USDA considers diffuse knapweed an invasive species.

The point, dear readers, is that we are notorious for introducing non-native species which end up being difficult to control and often harmful. And we're doing it again. This time, however, what is being introduced can kill.

The Observer reports that wounded US troops are bringing back a new, virulent bacteria from both Afghanistan and Iraq that may spread to civilian hospitals:

The bacterium, Acinetobacter baumannii, first emerged as a 'mystery infection' afflicting US service personnel returning from the war in Iraq in 2003-04. It was described by a scientific journal specialising in hospital epidemiology as the 'most important emerging hospital-acquired pathogen worldwide'. The journal added that it was potentially a 'major threat to public health' due to its ability to mutate rapidly and develop a resistance to all known drugs.

Although different types of acinetobacter have been known for decades in hospitals, the new 'T' strain identified in the injured troops is particularly virulent and has been observed to appear in US servicemen within two hours of being admitted to a field hospital. It affects the spinal fluid, bones and lungs, causing pneumonia, respiratory failure and other complications. Equally worrying is its resilience. Extremely difficult to eliminate from medical facilities once established, the bug can survive for up to 176 days in a human host. US officials concede that, once established in the medical evacuation chain, the germ is almost impossible to stamp out.

It's possible this "superbug" will be worse than MRSA. The current danger is to those whose immune systems are weakened, such as the ill, elderly and children. Still, this bacteria can cause an uncontrollable infection that can be deadly. Just one more byproduct of the war.