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Prions, Superbugs and the Beasts of the Earth

from the March 18, 2014 eNews issue



Sandra Tucker Kennedy of Kennebunk, Maine developed a cough with vertigo in November, and by Christmas she was in the hospital with the same symptoms as a stroke patient. She was sent home in January, where she continued to deteriorate and on March 3, this 38-year-old mother of four died from Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD). Like Mad Cow Disease, CJD is caused by a prion, an infectious protein that wreaks havoc on the nervous system and causes rapid degeneration and death. Now, eighteen neurosurgery patients in North Carolina may have been exposed to CJD, because normal sterilization techniques do not destroy the prions that cause this incurable disease. As far as medical science has come in the past century, new infectious challenges can be found around each new bend.

Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) is a fatal degenerative brain disorder that causes holes to develop in the brain so that it becomes spongy in texture. Like Mad Cow disease in bovines, CJD is caused by one version or another of a misfolded protein called a prion (PROteinaceous INfectious particle), which is able to reproduce on its own and become infectious. These confused proteins cause other correctly folded proteins to misfold, rapidly causing brain deterioration leading to memory loss and hallucinations, to speech impairment, ataxia, seizures, and death. CJD can result from a genetic mutation or from infection by somebody else, and doctors believe it can spontaneously pop up in about one in a million people, although CJD can have a long incubation period before it manifests itself.

A patient was discovered to be carrying CJD after having undergone neurosurgery at Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C. on January 18. He was only diagnosed with CJD, however, after many other patients had received operations in the same room. While the surgical instruments had been sterilized, prions are not destroyed as easily as bacteria, and the other patients are considered at risk for contracting the disease. The hospital has since gone through extensive further processes to cleanse the surgical rooms and instruments.

Two hundred cases of CJD are reported in the US each year.

In The Isles

The British face their share of frightening diseases. They’ve fought off Mad Cow Disease for more than a decade now, destroying herds of cattle whenever this dangerous disease is found. Right now, however, uncommon bacteria are causing more problems than bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). Ward 5C at Raigmore Hospital in Inverness in the Scottish Highlands was closed to new patients this week after confirming cases of Clostridium difficile. C. difficile is a species of Gram-positive bacteria that can take over the intestines when good gut flora are killed off by antibiotics, and it has become one of the more notorious hospital superbugs, causing severe diarrhea, acute toxic colitis and sometimes death.

The University of Western Australia has found that C. difficile infection (CDI) has become an increasing problem, with a total of 12,863 cases identified in 450 different hospitals with the annual incidence rate rising 24 percent from 2011 to 2012. The results were recently published in the Medical Journal of Australia. Hospital surveillance programs are in place to catch and isolate the bug anytime it pokes its little head into view; early detection and specialized cleaning are required to halt its invasive tendencies.

Our increase in medical knowledge has led to treatments for diseases that would have been deadly a century ago. Yet, even as we experiment and research to find more cures, new forms of diseases stick their cruel toes in our way. Thus far, science has failed to provide answers for all the world’s suffering.

Ultimately, our Creator is the only One who can truly free us from the fear of illness and death.

“Who forgiveth all thine iniquities; who healeth all thy diseases; Who redeemeth thy life from destruction; who crowneth thee with lovingkindness and tender mercies;”

— Psalm 103:3–4

Suffering is a part of this fallen world in which we live, but we know that even when we are surrounded by death and pestilence, we can rest in Him. We can trust His hand on us and the peace He brings to our lives. Because, praise God, we are promised that one day, He Himself will eradicate disease and death (Isa 25:8; Rev 7:17).

“And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.”

— Revelation 21:4

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