In 1899, the country's microbiologists, or bacteriologists as they were known then, were focused on an outbreak of bubonic plague in New York harbor. As if that weren't enough, ongoing concerns prevailed about farm animal diseases being transmissible to humans through dairy and meat products. And with typhoid fever and cholera endemic, laboratory professionals were eagerly watching an effort in Britain to purify bacteria from sewage.
Fast-forward to 2012 and so much has changed microorganism-wise. Or has it? Bubonic plague is rare now. But new, just as serious, risks keep microbiologists on their toes. For example, in 2002, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) almost reached pandemic proportions. In 2009, the H1N1 threat panicked citizens and kept laboratorians busy analyzing viral samples.
Ancient infections like syphilis, gonorrhea and zoonotic diseases remain challenging, and are compounded by rapid need-to-know-about new issues such as emerging superbugs, transplant infections, antibiotic resistance and the ever-mutating HIV virus.
Changing With the Times
One hundred thirteen years after its formation as the Society of American Bacteriologists, which first met in 1899, the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) is dealing with these perennial challenges and facing some very new ones. While the organization changed its name to ASM in 1960, it still delves into the microbial health of the country, albeit with more technologically advanced laboratory tools, including tracking disease outbreaks through the Internet and membership interaction using social media.
Along with the technological advancements, ASM members face other new challenges. Among them is how to sustain the profession. With the average age of 55 for a clinical microbiologist in the laboratory, the society is launching an initiative to ensure elementary, middle and high school-age children know this field of science exists as a possible career.
So members put their heads together to create innovations to meet the needs of its far-flung clinical microbiology members.
It all started with a 2010 meeting of ASM leadership identifying various needs, specifically for its clinical microbiology constituency--which is about 20 percent of its membership. "From that meeting came the Clinical Microbiology Task Force, which appointed six working groups," says Peggy McNult, assistant director for professional practice at the 38,000-member organization. One of those groups will address concern over "a predicted workforce shortage."
In another initiative, ASM is collaborating with the CDC and their contractor Battelle, using a laboratory medicine best-practices format created by the two entities, explains Alice S. Weissfeld, PhD, chair of subcommittee of the Evidence Based Practices Committee of ASM. "In one of the first infectious disease diagnostic evidence-based projects, ASM members will shadow evidence reviewers from Battelle to learn how to work through the process using a bloodstream infections project as a model."
Growing and Educating
To accomplish these goals, ASM--the world's oldest and largest life science organization composed of 27 microbiology disciplines--will "assemble a clinical mentoring network on a web portal we launched in December," explains Janet Hindler, clinical microbiologist at UCLA Medical Center, Los Angeles, and an ASM volunteer. "We will build a database and create a profile for each volunteer, including where they live, area of expertise, time in the profession, interests, etc. That way any clinical microbiologist looking for a mentor can find a match with similar professional interests," says Hindler, who will coordinate the effort.
An additional mentoring program, which is face-to-face, allows a more personal approach by pairing people within a region.
A related challenge is educating the public, including young people, about what laboratorians, specifically microbiologists, do and what contribution they make to healthcare. However, that shouldn't be a hard sell for an organization whose members were involved in analyzing specimens during the anthrax attack of 2001.
"We want to make sure clinical microbiology is recognized and compensated," says David C. Hooper, MD, president of ASM. "The value they bring to defining organisms that are being sent to their labs, understanding the nature of the bug and what it's susceptible to in terms of antibiotic choices is so important."
Equally important, Dr. Hooper points out, is for the public to understand that all organisms aren't bad. "One of our major goals is to make people aware of how beneficial microbes are and how critical they are to life on earth."
"News stories about disease are easy to sell, but good microbes aren't as exciting to people," says Barbara Hyde, director of communications at ASM. "We have an active program to get information out that microbes aren't just bad germs."
Also, educating the public and professionals about hand hygiene is an ongoing effort at ASM with a dedicated website: washup.org.
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