Pandemicals June 2003

The Real Unsung Heroes

By Roger P. Freeman, DDS
Originally published in Infection Control Today

To a microbe, "awe" is just a y-aw-n with training wheels! Shock and awe. How about a dollar for every time we've heard that phrase in the past few months? Already the keystone of GWII lexicon, S & A proved an apt, if somewhat misjudged description for the recent conflict. No matter the politics--elephant or donkey, right or left, Fox or CNN, lifetime subscriber to Al Jezeera--the facts do speak. Coalition troops shocked the world with their speed and might, and the men and women carrying out their mission left us in awe of their courage, skill and devotion to duty. Not unlike a day in infection control, actually.

Nothing short of microbe marines, infection control practitioners (ICPs) fight a different war. Different mission, different enemy (for the most part), but so many similar challenges: prepare, seek out, destroy, rebuild, protect, prevent. The biggest difference? Those "lucky" troops had only to contend with a maniac, his nutty sons and the Republican Guard--a piece of cake! The ICP battles endlessly on two fronts: first, combating a microscopic enemy smaller than Uday's IQ, one that giggles at 2,000-pound bombs, smirks (if it had lips) at Patriots, regroups in minutes, and bulks up to rise another day, another way; second, facing blindside firefights from the horsemen--apathy, economy, pique and sloth--with not even a stitch of help from night-goggles! Now that's a battle, mate!

Unsung and occasionally unstrung, the ICP engages a conflict that history-as-scorekeeper proves can only be contained at best, never won. The enemy is as old as time, has endless resources, the force of nature on its side, and doesn't care a lick about elaborate palaces or gilded toilet fixtures. Can't even bribe the little buggers. Rapid deployment of the typical arsenal--steam, heat, chems, nukes, Foreman grills--may send some of them limping, but rarely (think variola) will they go away. Age-old foes like mycobacterium, plasmodium, plague and influenza team up with newbies like HIV, resistant Staph and Strep to pose formidable enemies. And how 'bout that West Nile thing, not to mention outbreak d'annee, SARS.

Comparing the Saddamati to these para-microbes is like comparing Michael Jordan to your brother-in-law, or your Carrera (think big) to a Segway! And through it all, the ICP is in the eye of the storm, where there's always plenty of sand obscuring the action, the players, the victims and often, the victories. In the last analysis, there are no toppled monuments, no flag raisings, no ticker-tape homecomings, not even some good-natured looting. Just another day at the "office."

Having said all that, take it from someone with a nose to the windowpane, one who used to think "surveillance" was two guys in an unmarked car with doughnuts: ICPs may be unsung, but the view, at least from this bridge, speaks to heroes. Awesome!

Dr. Roger P. Freeman is a retired veteran of 30 years in private and institutional dental practice. He has witnessed and participated in major changes in delivery of hygienic dental services, and has proactively participated in raising public awareness about infection control and disease transmission issues. From his columns on Microbe of the Month, it is also obvious he has been seriously affected by years of inhaling tooth dust, skewing his otherwise perfect perception of the world. Freeman can be reached at rfree@iawareables.com