November 22, 2017
Microbe Hunters
Be Well

Microbe Hunters

by John Swartzberg, M.D.  

If you are over 60, the words Microbe Hunters might call up the name of Paul de Kruif, author of this hugely successful scientific popularization. Published in 1926 and still in print, Microbe Hunters was recommended reading in American schools for decades. It was translated into a score of languages. There is no way of knowing how many young imaginations it captured.

Here were 12 real-life heroes in pursuit of various pathogens, such as Walter Reed and yellow fever, Louis Pasteur and rabies (not his only quarry), David Bruce and sleeping sickness in Africa. These epic tales featured dynamic characters, dramatic conversations in lab and field, and eventual triumph. De Kruif loved the muscular metaphor—the conquest, the pursuit, the hunt. It may be because of him, in part, that we still speak of the war on cancer and the battle against disease.

The book was turned into two movies and a Broadway play. De Kruif, born in 1890, was a trained microbiologist, and his output on scientific subjects for popular magazines was prodigious. In an epoch that was less scientifically savvy than our own, he believed deeply in the power of research to improve human health and in the nobility of the scientist. His work taught several generations to look to scientific medicine for dramatic breakthroughs and the conquest of disease.

Scientists today tend to be less flamboyant than de Kruif’s stalwart pioneers. And yet, microbe hunting is still a dangerous pursuit, even in the best-run lab. Many microbiologists work at the scene of outbreaks, tracking the mysteries of deadly viruses like Zika, Ebola, or Marburg and new pathogens as they arise.

There are still plenty of microbes in need of tracking. HIV may one day follow smallpox into oblivion. Still, when we’ve cornered some pathogen and have a vaccine for it, it’s not always the end of the story.Because of cultural resistance and unfounded fears of vaccination in Pakistan, for example, children still needlessly contract polio.

Even in the U.S., operating on the mistaken idea (apparently held even by our president) that vaccines cause autism or are harmful in other ways, some parents refuse to vaccinate their infants and young children against such dangerous diseases as measles, chickenpox, diphtheria, whooping cough, and tetanus. Far fewer Americans get the flu vaccine than should. The same is true for the pneumonia vaccine for those over 65 and the shingles vaccine for those over 60.

De Kruif would have been excited by more recent discoveries about how microbes contribute to various types of cancer. The human papilloma virus (HPV) causes cervical and oral cancers, for instance, while infection with the hepatitis B virus can lead to liver cancer. Thus vaccines targeting these two viruses can actually prevent cancer. This raises hope for vaccines for other cancers.

The “hunt” continues. Good luck, microbe hunters.