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Modern life brings perils -- in form of infections

TORONTO, Ontario (Reuters) -- Modern life may have brought many conveniences -- jet travel, exotic imported fruits in the supermarket, and powerful new medicines -- but the same conveniences carry the price of frightening new infections, researchers said on Tuesday.

West Nile virus, probably carried to North America on an airliner, is the first example of how international travel makes every infectious disease a global threat, the researchers told a meeting of the American Society of Microbiology.

Other new threats to wealthy societies come from intensive food processing and from "super bug" bacteria that, under pressure from new antibiotics, have evolved to resist them.

West Nile virus, never seen in the Western Hemisphere before 1999, has been found in birds and mosquitoes in 6 U.S. states this year -- New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Hampshire, Dr. Marci Layton of the New York City Department of Health said.

And while it was found in only one species of mosquito in 1999, it has now been found in 7, Layton told a news conference.

"This outbreak underscores the ease with which outbreaks can move between continents," Layton said. "The concern is how far is will go next year."

She said the outbreak, in which 7 people died in 1999, showed that the world truly is a global community where exposure to the latest infection is only a flight away.

"This concept of importing or emerging infections is true -- it does happen," she said. "However it came, it was probably on an airplane or a ship."

Theories about how West Nile was imported to the United States include via an infected traveller who was bitten by a mosquito in New York, an imported infected bird, or a mosquito that got onto an airplane.

Jets also bring in contaminated food.

Dr. Cindy Friedman of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta said the growing demand for exotic and convenience food -- such as pre-packaged salads -- may be in part responsible for outbreaks of food poisoning.

"The reported number of outbreaks has tripled since the '70s," Friedman said. And while in the 1970s an average of 4 people got sick in each outbreak, in the 1990s the average was 40. "We are finding larger, multi-state outbreaks," she said.

Most are due to 3 bacteria -- salmonella, the newly toxic strain of E. coli and cyclospora. They can get into food from manure used as fertilizer, when food touches the ground, or from other sources of cross contamination such as raw eggs.

Friedman said a recent U.S. outbreak of poisoning from contaminated mangoes was traced to a farm in Brazil where, ironically, measures aimed at decontaminating the mangoes ended up contaminating them. Dirty water used to wash the fruit probably spread the toxic bacteria, she said.

The fruit takes up the water through holes in its skin where the stem is. "So there's no use washing or peeling the fruit," Friedman said.

The same happened with lettuce responsible for an outbreak in Illinois last year, she said. Dirty water was used to rinse the lettuce at the farm in California.

And even if people do get infections, medicines meant to fight them have caused bacteria to mutate into so-called super bug strains that can resist nearly all drugs.

This resistance started back in the 1940s, soon after the first antibiotic, penicillin, was introduced, Dr. Julie Gerberding of the CDC said. "More than 95 percent of Staphylococcus aureus strains are penicillin-resistant," she told the conference. "It signals an era when we have to rely on more expensive and less-effective antibiotics."

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) has been reported outside hospitals in 17 U.S. states and 13 countries.

Once restricted to hospitals, where seriously ill patients are exposed to constant infusions of drugs, the super bugs are now being found in the community, Gerberding said.

Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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