Sunday, September 24, 2006

I SEE DUMB PEOPLE: Columnist conflates spinach contamination and bioterror

Bacterial contamination of food is a subject taught in every introductory microbiology class. And that is because it is a significant and ever present cause of human disease.

For example, on the subject of typhoid fever -- of interest because of the rumor of Osama bin Laden's death, "Fundamentals of Microbiology (3rd Edition)" by I. Edward Alcamo, typhoid fever is listed under "Foodborne and Waterborne Infections."

"Typhoid fever is in the series of classical diseases that have ravaged humans for generations," reads Alcamo.

Caused by Salmonella typhi, a Gram-negative rod, the organism is resistant to "environmental conditions outside the body."

"This factor enhances its ability to remain alive for long periods of time in water, sewage and certain foods. S. typhi causes disease only in humans and is transmitted by the five F's: flies, food, fingers, feces and fomites."

"In the small intestine it invades the tissues, causing deep ulcers and bloody stools but little diarrhea . . . [b]owel perforation and gall bladder infection are [possible] complications."

The disease also causes "mounting fever, lethargy and delirium."

If the death of Osama bin Laden from typhoid fever is not a rumor, there will be delicious irony in the fact that the leader of a terrorist organization interested in bioterror experienced the terrible fright that must come while dieing, untreated, from a painful microbial illness. (But if not, forget I said it.)

Moving along, "The outbreak of E. coli O157: H7 linked to fresh spinach was blamed for five more cases of illness Saturday," wrote Associated Press, "raising the number of people sickened to 117 . . . "

Ninety two people have been hospitalized, said the report. One has died and two other deaths "are under investigation for possible links to the outbreak."

California state have traced the contamination to three counties in the Salinas Valley where spinach is grown.

And earlier in the week, the Los Angeles Times ran a story in which scientists stated that most, if not all, of California's waterways in its growing region were contaminated with E. coli as a result of run-off and manure from domestic animal excrement, and that some of the contamination was likely, by odds, to be O157:H7.

While contaminated spinach has reminded everyone that foodborne poisoning is always with us and sometimes deadly, DD was waiting for some clown to use it an excuse to go on about the evergreen menace of bioterrorism.

And sure enough, Martin Schram, a political columnist for Scripps Howard, turned out a column entitled "Spinach and bioterrorism prevention," today.

To do it, Schram had to go back to the case of the Rajneeshee cult in the Oregon town of The Dalles in 1984. In an attempt to rig an election by making people ill -- this would, the idea went, force people to stay home -- the Rajneeshee contaminated salad bars in restaurants with Salmonella typhimurium.

Wrote a scientist from the CDC:


A communitywide outbreak of salmonellosis resulted; at least 751 cases were documented in a county that typically reports fewer than five cases per year. Although bioterrorism was considered a possibility when the outbreak was being investigated by public health officials, it was considered unlikely. The source of the outbreak became known only when FBI investigated the cult for other criminal violations. A vial of S. Typhimurium identical to the outbreak strain was found in a clinical laboratory on the cult's compound, and members of the cult subsequently admitted to contaminating the salad bars and putting Salmonella into a city water supply tank.

However, instead of noting anywhere in his article that bioterrorism has remained exceedingly rare, despite the desires of some and the case of the Rajneeshee, and that foodborne poisoning is common throughout the world, Schram goes in the other direction.

That other direction is the one well known to daily readers of DD blog when it has its GlobalSecurity.Org Senior Fellow T-shirt on.

This could have been bioterror because it's easy. The nation's not ready and we're not ready. Someone or some agency is always horribly unprepared. Everyone is in need of wake-up calls and a good shaking.

This time, writes Schram, we're "understaffed" in the search for bioterror.

Schram writes it as if unaware of how many people deadeningly repeat the same bioterror message through his medium.

For instance, ABC's evening news broadcast rang the bell today, too. Agroterrorism -- it's easy, the news network reported. Richard Clarke was produced to say unnamed enemies had the capability to destroy or poison an entire food crop. It's not science fiction, reported ABC.

The spouting of prediction and warning on bioterror is long past the point of providing even the slightest bit of useful or even vaguely interesting information. It's now always the blurting of repetitive memes, all careful thought squeezed from the matter which is degenerated into a flavor of terror war propaganda designed to grab the listener, reader or viewer's attention and create unease.

Yes, I get it, Martin Schram. Everyone does. Having been beaten over the head with hype and cant so regularly, how could we not? Thanks for repeating the script. (It will be repeated again this week, just as soon as reporters start filing stories from an agroterror conference being held in Kansas City.)

"We have just witnessed a demonstration of how terrorists might use our food conveyor belt to spread their deliberate contamination from coast to coast," writes Schram. "Even while we think our food detectives are on the case, eyes wide open."

So order the bodybags and lime.

The next time Schram is sitting in the bathroom, his gut gripped by Staph food-poisoning, we should hope he has time to compose another essay on witnessing a demonstration of how terrorists might have used his food to put him on the commode.

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