Flesh-Eating Bacteria

The film Contagion takes a peek at the CDC folks in Atlanta and shows that they care about one another: it’s the other folks that cause them grief—the feds and the locals. I think they got it right.

I was privileged to work with a bunch of epidemiologists in Atlanta, all of whom dedicated their lives and work to helping people. Period.

We shared offices in close quarters, a bull-pen with phones ringing constantly and lively chatter, and my CDC colleagues took their work seriously. I loved to hear stories when my pals returned from an outbreak: never as sexy as the movies portray, but riveting nonetheless.

One of my friends told me about the time she was called in to investigate an outbreak of necrotizing fasciitis at a daycare center in the North East.

Necrotizing fasciitis wreaks havoc in the wake of the bacterium Streptococcus, which can damage the skin and muscles. The media call it flesh-eating bacteria.

The folks with whom I worked were embroiled in a public information campaign about antibiotic use, keen on getting the medical community and lay publics to recognize that antibiotics are over-used, thus resulting in spread of resistant bacteria. That’s where my skills were requested: to help frame the information campaign.

My pal tried to track down how the bacterium had spread at the daycare center. She and her colleagues swabbed everything in sight: furniture, light switches, toys. They were stumped: they couldn’t figure out how the disease was spreading.

Then my friend looked around: she was examining an empty room. Without the children present she couldn’t visualize how they were passing around the bacterium. She asked: what would I do if I were a kid?

She had to get inside the head of a tyke, and it was then she saw something they had missed completely.

There was a pile of toys they had missed because the researchers were thinking like adults, not kids. The toys were little plastic food items—a piece of toast, a head of lettuce, a slice of orange—that were tucked into a play kitchen.

The researchers didn’t realize that the kids—being kids—were putting the plastic food into their mouths, pretending to eat, and then passing along the “food” to their playmates. And that’s where they found the bacteria.

By shifting her perspective slightly, my friend was able to solve the mystery.

[Photo from Hybrid Medical Animation/Photo Researchers]

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About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. She is enrolled with the Osage tribe.
This entry was posted in film, framing, health, risk, science, science communication and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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