When Killer Bugs Bite Back

Infectious diseases: A rogues' gallery of the germs that laugh at the best drugs we've got.

Illustration by JD King

Mycobacterium tuberculosisIllustration by JD King

A century ago, an ear infection could have meant deafness; a staph infection could have meant death. Those days may seem long gone. But scientists warn that drug resistance could be our Achilles heel. "Just about every pathogen that causes human disease is becoming resistant to the drugs we rely on most to treat them," says David Bell, the CDC's antimicrobial resistance coordinator. Everything from malaria to bacteria lurking in leftovers is getting harder to kill. Here, five top offenders.

POISON POULTRY: Campylobacter jejuni

What it does: Causes abdominal cramping, nausea, bloody diarrhea, fever and, if it infects the bloodstream, death.

How you get it: Eating undercooked or raw poultry (dirty cutting boards are a favorite nesting ground). Drinking unpasteurized milk can also cause infection.

Treatment: Rest and fluids resolve most cases. In 2000, 14 percent of cases were
Cipro-proof.

THE WRATH OF STAPH: Staphylococcus aureus

What it does: Causes boils, abscesses, heart and brain infections, pneumonia and death.

How you get it: Staph lurks everywhere-in your nose,
on your skin-and is especially common in hospitals.
It leaches into the body mostly
through open sores.

Treatment: Forty percent
of cases resist the standard antibiotic methicillin. Even pharmacology's big gun, vancomycin, has now failed in 3 cases.

TUBERCULOSIS MAULS THE MULTIDRUGS: Mycobacterium tuberculosis

What it does: Inhaled into the lungs, TB can lie dormant for years. But when it activates, it can cause fever, weight loss, night sweats, a hacking cough and death.

How you get it: Infectious TB germs circulate via coughs, spit and sneezes. Worldwide, TB infections kill 2 million per year.

Treatment: Multidrug resistance to tuberculosis is on the rise-especially among refugees and people with HIV.

THE CRUEL, CRUEL CLAP: Neisseria gonorrhoeae

What it does: Infects the genital tract, mouth, rectum, and, in women, the cervix and uterus. Symptoms include itching, painful urination, pustulant
discharge and sterility.

How you get it: Unprotected sex. According to the CDC, 358,995 people (most ages 15 to 29) were infected in 2000.

Treatment: Some 30 percent of gonorrhea cases are now resistant to the commonly used antibiotics penicillin and tetracycline.

STREP STEPS OUT: Streptococcus pneumoniae

What it does: Causes ear infections (7 million per year in the United States), pneumonia, meningitis (brain swelling) and death, especially in children.

How you get it: The bug lives in nose and throat tissue. Sneezes, coughs and handshakes can transmit the microbe from one person to another.

Treatment: About 30 percent of cases now resist penicillin.