Aside from those giving birth or seeking gratification from plastic surgery, few people actively try to get into hospitals. Despite the great benefit that they provide to us, hospitals are full of the sick, the injured and the dying and most of us only voluntarily enter these institutions to visit friends and relatives who need to be there. However, hospitals are there for everyone and sooner or later we all get "our chance" to make use of the facilities.
For most of us that go into a hospital, we go there to be healed and to begin a recovery from whatever ails us. Unfortunately, as is too commonly the case, an unwelcome party such as bacterial pneumonia will visit many of us and our recovery can be delayed significantly. While hospitals generally try their best to eradicate bacteria such as those that cause can pneumonia, fighting the bugs is a difficult and ongoing task and the bacteria may have come with the patient in the first place.
Streptococcus pneumoniae is the most common cause of bacterial pneumonia and is found living normally on the teeth and on the back of the throat in healthy individuals. It is only when these bacteria "go bad" and take advantage of us when we are in a weakened state that pneumonia, as we know it, will develop as an infection in the lungs. With pneumonia bacteria living only a "breath away" from our lungs, it is understandable why it is such a common problem.
With outbreaks such as the recent N1H1 or inappropriately named "swine" flu, the medical community tries it's very best to prevent death from influenza and this is broadcast in the media. What is typically lost in this news, however, is that it is not the flu that kills people; it is the resulting pneumonia that, in 95% of cases, is the cause of death from influenza. In the US, even under normal non-pandemic situations, pneumonia is responsible for more than 1 in 9 hospital related deaths. Under most circumstances, it is disproportionately fatal for the very young and the very old.
Since it is such a common, yet serious, problem, research into pneumonia is an ongoing exercise. Three important finding that have emerged in recent years are crucial to preventing deaths. One such finding is that the choice of antibiotic used against pneumonia has a strong impact on the ability to control the infection. However, it is not the potency of the antibiotic that is as important as how the antibiotic kills the bacteria. Researchers at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital have found that antibiotics which kill bacteria by causing them to burst can aggravate inflammation in the lungs by causing more foreign material to be recognized by the immune system which in turn causes a more vigorous response that can further reduce lung function.
The second important finding to emerge is the understanding of how the pneumonia bacteria develop immune resistance to antibiotics. These results obtained from research headed by the University of Warwick are crucial because they allow the possibility to bypass the antibiotic arms races that has been ongoing since the 1940's introduction of penecillan. When this area of knowledge is fully developed, it may eventually allow penecillan to once again be used as an effective treatment of pneumonia.
Finally, research studies at University Hospital in Lund, Sweden have found that an alternative to antiseptics for killing pneumonia in hospital is the use of probiotic bacteria found in a number of common foods. The probiotic bacteria are not harmful to humans and are able to out compete the pneumonia bacteria that reside in the mouth and on the back of the throat. The reduction in pneumonia bacteria present reduces the possibility of the bacteria gaining a foothold in the lungs.
While pneumonia is something that we will not likely eradicate from our hospitals anytime soon, understanding how it works and how to best fight it can provide a significant leg up. With the continuing development of this knowledge, we may soon be able to ensure that these unwanted hospital visitors come less frequently or at least do not over extend their welcome.