In a world of rapidly developing diseases, nurses and biologists stand at the forefront of an epidemic, ready to help contain and treat whatever outbreak just arrived. In the classroom, students are taught about past infectious disease, with textbooks struggling to keep up with current issues plaguing society. Dr. Michael Dickman, adjunct professor for the School of Arts and Sciences, uses his Clinical Microbiology course to teach nursing students about current issues in infectious disease, preparing them for careers where they’ll deal with these issues head on.
Dickman is no stranger to the field of infectious disease. While receiving his PhD at Thomas Jefferson University, his thesis was supported by the United States Navy, focusing on many aspects of infectious diseases during the Vietnam War. He has also directed a private clinical laboratory, The Dickman Laboratories, and the Philadelphia Naval Hospital’s Microbiology Division, where he served as the only civilian member of the hospital’s Infectious Disease Control Committee.
As an instructor, he has taught Nursing Microbiology and Biology at Holy Family University for the past seven years.
According to Dickman, textbooks cover past infectious diseases, such as Tetanus and Diphtheria. However, these outbreaks are now considered rare because of "herd immunity," or acquired immunity due to a high proportion of a population who have been exposed to small doses of these pathogens over time. Instead, Dickman argues, that students should also be learning about current infectious diseases that nurses and biologists will be facing in the immediate future.
“During the past year there have been a number of cases of serious toxin producing STEC E. coli and gastrointestinal upsets in Chipotle, Quedoba and other food chains. These represent the types of issues that our nurses will face immediately following graduation as opposed to standard infectious diseases. These new outbreaks are continually inserted in my lectures to keep the students current. They are urged to select emerging diseases and treatments to study, such as implanting new gut flora into patients with C. difficile disease.”
In his classes, Dickman has taught about current infectious disease outbreaks in the United States as well as worldwide pandemics, including Zika, Norovirus, and strains of flesh eating bacteria.
“Almost all texts books in Microbiology, no matter how recently published, are years behind what is currently occurring in the field,” he said. “I would guess that currently not a single Nurses’ textbook includes updated information on such pathogens as the Zika virus, which is currently causing a world-wide pandemic, or updated data on new diseases and the epidemiology and treatment of infections caused by MRSA, VRE, STEC E.coli, flesh eating bacteria, and the Norovirus. These textbooks also lack references to the alarming incidence of Carbenicillin resistance, recently observed in Klebiella spp. and Colistin resistance reported in many members of the Enterobacteriaceae. These issues serve as addenda to our standard Powerpoint presentations, which should in the future be added by textbook publishers.”
With recent outbreaks of Ebola and Zika, Dickman saw an opportunity to educate students on the disease, where it came from, and how it was able to reenter the world after being dormant for many years.
“When we discuss the cause of infections with previously unknown microorganisms such as Ebola and Zika, I stress to our students that they represent ‘spill over’ and ‘jumping’ from the continually receding forest and jungle areas where they have been hiding,” Dickman said. “The emergence of new so called ‘Super Bugs’ such as flesh eating strains of Group A and S. pyogenes are also added to our lectures during the semester to ensure that our students are familiar with updated topics.”
Students are also encouraged to share the latest news they find with their professor and classmates. For example, a student is currently investigating a possible increase in new Zika cases among athletes and spectators at the summer Olympics. The student is also running data on whether there was an increase in Zika cases during the Paralympics, also held in Rio this year.
“In addition to helping the kids focus on new instances associated with infectious diseases, they learn that Microbiology is not a stagnant topic and that new cases and outbreaks with common and unusual pathogens occur on a daily basis. I truly believe that students will better understand those issues that they are likely to encounter as the enter their clinical careers.”