Shousun C. Szu, a scientist at the National Institutes of Health, wants to vaccinate ALL INFANTS against the E. coli bacteria:
“Dr. Szu of the health institutes said a better approach would be to vaccinate people so their immune systems could dispense with the bacteria before they had a chance to multiply and release their toxin in the bloodstream.
She and colleagues have developed a vaccine made of the complex sugar that is on the surface of the bacteria, the very O-type polysaccharide that gives O157 its name. The sugar is linked to a protein taken from another bacterium to make it more potent in stimulating the immune system.
Dr. Szu and collaborators have tested the vaccine on adult volunteers and on children 2 to 5. The volunteers were not exposed to O157 — that would be unethical — but they developed antibodies to it. Moreover, when the bacteria were exposed in the laboratory to blood samples from vaccinated people, the microbes were killed. Dr. Szu said the next test would be in infants.”1
And Graeme McRae, a Canadian biotechnology executive, wants to inoculate cows:
“The cattle vaccine developed by Bioniche is based on the work of B. Brett Finlay of the University of British Columbia, who helped discover how O157 bacteria attach themselves to the cattle intestines, where they can then multiply.
The bacteria use a type of microscopic syringe to shoot proteins into the cells lining the intestine, and the cells erect a protein pedestal, to which the bacteria can bind.
The Bioniche vaccine consists of proteins involved in the attachment. The idea is that the cow’s immune system would make antibodies to attack the proteins, thereby blocking the attachment. The bacteria could still pass through the cow and into manure. But if they could not colonize, their levels should remain low.”2
Regardless, vaccines for both people and cattle, against the E. coli strain O157: H7, are currently under development. And all because scientists can do little medically to fight the pathogen.
On April 12th, an advisory committee of the FDA met to discuss how to run clinical trials of drugs to treat E. coli infections. And a vaccine for cattle developed by McRae’s company, Bioniche Life Sciences, was approved in December for distribution to veterinarians in Canada. (However, studies have shown that the vaccine is only able to reduce -but not eliminate- the E. coli shed into manure.)
Why haven’t we learned our lesson yet? Why do we really believe, after the side effects, serious issues and deaths that we’ve seen from vaccines, that they are a magic bullet?
Currently, the main approach to prevent contamination is “through careful handling, rigorous inspection, and government regulation. Slaughterhouses have already sharply reduced contamination through practices like washing carcasses with hot water, steam or acids. Now the focus is on new procedures and regulations for the fresh-produce industry.
Not only does that make the cows cleaner as they go into the slaughterhouse, but it could also conceivably reduce the risk that the germ will spread from a feedlot to a nearby produce field though water or wild animals. Cows and their manure are considered the major sources of the pathogen.”3
But again, why focus on all this high-tech stuff when we could stop factory farming and just use no-nonsense, common sense, prevention measures?
“One big potential barrier is that ranchers and feedlots may have little incentive to pay for such treatments, because they do not make the cows grow faster. Nor do they keep the cows healthy, because O157 does not sicken the cows that harbor it.
‘The cattle industry is within pennies of making a profit or not,’ said Carolyn Hovde Bohach, a professor of microbiology at the University of Idaho who is working on a different E. coli vaccine for cattle. ‘Would it be their responsibility to protect vegetables?’”4
This should infuriate us. Farmers are barely making a profit so the least resistance makes sense to them. And that might be fine when you are talking about moving furniture but not when you are talking about growing food!
According to a 1999 estimate by the CDC, every year E. coli O157:H7 causes 75,000 cases of infection and 61 deaths in the U.S. Although the actual number of confirmed cases dropped in 2003 and 2004, it has since increased due to the outbreaks tied to spinach and lettuce. Clearly, something must be done. And I can’t think of a time when vaccines were the answer.