RLO: Bacteria and Viruses Compared

Background

In 1994 there was widespread reporting by the media of a ‘flesh eating bug’ in the UK. This ‘superbug’ was ‘destroying human flesh at the rate of one inch per hour’!

The media hype led to widespread public anxiety. In fact, the condition - necrotising fasciitis - is caused by Streptococcus pyogenes, and is a very rare complication of surgery or other debilitating conditions.

In many instances during the reporting of this case, the microbe responsible was wrongly labelled as a virus. It was also suggested that bacteriophages – a particular type of virus – were altering the genetic makeup of the Streptococcus bacteria. The alterations were thought to make it more virulent and resistant to antibiotics, therefore leading to an epidemic of the condition.

A basic understanding of the differences between bacteria and viruses would have alleviated the concerns of the public, since much of what was reported was at best misleading, and at worst blatantly wrong.

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Images of S. pyogenes and bacteriophage used with permission. (See Resources page for details.)