I love working in the science field. I love to learn, ask questions and try and understand the mysteries of living organisms – human or animal. I love the thrill of discovery, innovation and feeling like a pioneer in fields that interest me (infection prevention and biosecurity). Science has taught me how little I know and how truly fascinating the world is. I get paid to think hard and irritate the non-scientists I work with by insistently asking questions and starting many sentences with “Ya-but….” It’s an awesome gig. I’ve embraced my geekiness, but admit there are times when my geekiness can get embarrassing.
Why do I love infection prevention and biosecurity so much? I get to play in both the human and animal health markets. There are always new “bugs” popping up. I am always tasked with figuring out the best way to clean and disinfect so that a facility can stop the transmission and save the lives of their patients. Every time I learn about a new bug, I get to learn and work to figure out how cleaning and disinfection can help. As you can imagine, reading an article about a new strain of Streptococcus totally grabbed my attention! According to the articles I’ve read, between February and November of this year, there have been 28 confirmed cases, 4 of which died. Ten of the people were found in the Fairbanks area and 18 in Anchorage. The most recent cased in Anchorage have occurred in homeless men with a history of alcohol abuse.
There are 220 different strains of Group A Strep (also known as GAS) which can cause a wide range of infections including strep throat and wound infections, to toxic shock syndrome and necrotizing fasciitis. People who are generally more susceptible include the elderly, the very young and those with underlying health conditions. There is also data that suggests that some racial demographic groups are also at higher risks. While Alaska averages 60 to 90 GAS infections each year, this outbreak is associated with a newly identified strain. One that has never been seen before. The strain was identified in July and of interest the cases have been mostly middle-aged Alaska Native men, many of who have stayed in homeless shelters.
Residents of homeless shelters may represent a population at increased risk of GAS carriage and infection due to the fact that they may have various health conditions, such as lung disease and alcohol abuse which make them more prone to infections. Group A Strep can easily spread to other people. It lives in the nose and throat of individuals and is spread by direct contact with nose and throat discharges of an infected individual or with infected skin lesions. The risk of spread is greatest when an individual is ill, such as when people have strep throat or an infected wound. When someone who is infected coughs or sneezes, the bacteria travels in small respiratory droplets. You can then get sick if these respiratory droplets are breathed in or a surface that has the droplets on it is touched followed by touching your mouth or nose. You can also become ill if you drink from the same glass or eat from the same plate as a sick person. Crowded conditions within a busy homeless shelter can therefore be the perfect environment for spreading disease.
Do you see why science is so awesome? I certainly would never want to minimize the deaths that have occurred from this outbreak, but finding a new strain – Streptococcus anchorage – you have to admit is pretty cool.