An E. coli’s Last Message to President Obama

Deadly invisible pathogens are on the march. Ebola, and now the Zika virus, the ongoing cholera epidemics and the enormous casualties from tuberculosis, malaria and varieties of avian Influenza—all of these should be waking us up to the global spread of disease and the public health challenges when it comes to dealing with mutational virulence. Millions die every year. But the political leaders of nations don’t seem to respect the warnings from our scientists. Pandemic, the important book by Sonia Shah, is a jeremiad, and should spark policy makers’ public concern. Unfortunately, basketball and March Madness occupy more public attention by our political leaders.

A large U.S. hospital has a larger budget than the beleaguered World Health Organization, which is tasked, by nearly two hundred nations, with heading off epidemics and pandemics and trying to limit their spread.

Errant microbes are getting assistance from environmental upheavals, global travel, poor sanitation and starved public health facilities, as well as political corruption and dense urbanization.

Yet the big money still goes into armaments, where the profits prosper. Presidents make speeches about terrorism and national security. Congress holds constant hearings, rubberstamping military budgets. Have you heard these bacteria and viruses—those most certain terrorist perils—discussed in a nationally-televised address by any President or brought up in major Congressional hearings? Of course you haven’t. There haven’t been any.

Over the years I have tried mostly in vain to get this country’s leadership to wake up to this looming century of pandemic threats. True, grants by big foundations and some public money have gone into reducing malaria and some other infectious diseases. But it has been too little and, for many men, women and children, too late.

Frustration often leads to satire. Let me share with you an unanswered letter I wrote to President Barack Obama on June 3, 2011. I was told that some scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were pleased with the message.

Dear President Obama:

My name is E. coli 0104:H4. I am being detained in a German Laboratory in Baveria, charged with being “a highly virulent strain of bacteria.” Together with many others like me, the police have accused us of causing about 20 deaths and nearly five hundred cases of kidney failure–so far. Massive publicity and panic all around.

You can’t see me, but your scientists can. They are examining me and I know my days are numbered. I hear them calling me a “biological terrorist,” an unusual combination of two different E. coli bacteria cells. One even referred to me as a “conspiracy of mutants.”

It is not my fault, I want you to know. I cannot help but harm innocent humans, and I am very sad about this. I want to redeem myself, so I am sending this life-saving message straight from my petri dish to you.

This outbreak in Germany has been traced to food–location unknown. What is known to you is that invisible terrorism from bacterium and viruses take massively greater lives than the terrorism you are spending billions of dollars and armaments to stop in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Malaria, caused by infection with one of four species of Plasmodium, a parasite transmitted by Anopheles mosquitoes destroys a million lives a year. Many of the victims are children and pregnant women. Mycobacterium tuberculosis takes over one million lives each year. The human immuno-deficiency virus (HIV) causes over a million deaths each year as well. Many other microorganisms in the water, soil, air, and food are daily weapons of mass destruction. Very little in your defense budget goes for operational armed forces against this kind of violence. Your agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, conduct some research but again nothing compared to the research for your missiles, drones, aircraft, and satellites.

Your associates are obsessed with possible bacteriological warfare by your human enemies. Yet you are hardly doing anything on the ongoing silent violence of my indiscriminate brethren.

You and your predecessor George W. Bush made many speeches about fighting terrorism by humans. Have you made a major speech about us?

You speak regularly about crushing the resistance of your enemies. But you splash around so many antibiotics (obviously I don’t like this word and consider it genocidal) in cows, bulls, chickens, pigs, and fish that your species is creating massive antibiotic resistance, provoking our mutations, so that we can breed even stronger progeny. You are regarded as the smartest beings on Earth, yet you seem to have too many neurons backfiring.

In the past two days of detention, scientists have subjected me to “enhanced interrogation,” as if I have any will to give up my secrets. It doesn’t work. What they will find out will be from their insights about me under their microscopes. I am lethal, I guess, but I’m not very complicated.

The United States, together with other countries, needs more laboratories where scientists can detain samples of us and subject us to extraordinary rendition to infectious disease research centers. Many infectious disease scientists need to be trained, especially in the southern hemisphere, to staff these labs.

You are hung up on certain kinds of preventable violence without any risk/benefit analysis. This, you should agree, is utterly irrational. You should not care where the preventable violence comes from except to focus on its range of devastation and its susceptibility to prevention or cure!

Well, here they come to my petri dish for some more waterboarding. One last item: You may wonder how tiny bacterial me, probably not even harboring a virus, can send you such a letter. My oozing sense is that I’m just a carrier, being used by oodles of scientists taking advantage of a high-profile infectious outbreak in Europe to catch your attention.

Whatever the how—does it really matter to the need to act Now?

E-cologically yours,

E. coli 0104:H4 (for the time being)

Ralph Nader is a leading consumer advocate, the author of The Rebellious CEO: 12 Leaders Who Did It Right, among many other books, and a four-time candidate for US President. Read other articles by Ralph, or visit Ralph's website.