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Three Ways Bacteria and Viruses Affect Society and the Economy

The littlest things can exact big prices.
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(Photo: collective nouns/Flickr)

(Photo: collective nouns/Flickr)

Over the past few months, bird flu has been spreading among chickens and turkeys in the American Midwest. Officials say the flu's genetic make-up suggests it likely won't make the jump to infecting humans. Nevertheless, bird flu is making a big impact on many people, as farmers have had to slaughter millions of birds, to prevent the virus' spread. That's led to a rise in the prices of eggs and turkey deli meat, the Associated Press reports.

The microscopic critters of the world often have far-reaching impacts on society and the economy, even among those they don't sicken. Here are two more ways infectious diseases alter the prices we see and the functioning of our workplaces:

  1. Common illnesses, like the seasonal flu, take their toll on the United States economy every year. The costs include the time sick people take off work, and even lost work hours—when people die of infectious diseases. Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that seasonal flu cost the U.S. $87.1 billion in 2003. And it's not just the flu: A team of University of Pittsburgh researchers estimated that diarrhea in hospitals costs U.S. society $796 million.
  2. Overall, the price we pay for meat is intimately linked to bacteria, and not only during disease outbreaks. Americans owe their cheap meat prices in part to the widespread use of low doses of antibiotics in animal feed. Giving livestock and poultry antibiotics makes them grow bigger, without eating more. (Scientists still aren't totally sure why.) Antibiotics also allow farmers to raise animals in more crowded barns. Scientists have long warned that the over-use of antibiotics in farming creates resistant bacteria that can give people illnesses difficult or impossible to treat with modern medicines. That would, of course, lead to a rise in the cost of illnesses like the ones described above.

How much cheaper have antibiotics use—and antibiotic resistance—made American meat? In 1999, the U.S. National Research Council estimated that if the U.S. banned farmers from giving antibiotics to animals who aren't sick, chicken and turkey would cost one to three cents more per pound, and a pound of beef or pork would go up three to six cents.