A clinical condition known as leukopenia occasionally occurs in which the bone marrow produces very few white blood cells, leaving the body unprotected against many bacteria and other agents that might invade the tissues.
Normally, the human body lives in symbiosis with many bacteria, because all the mucous membranes of the body are constantly exposed to large numbers of bacteria. The mouth almost always contains various spirochetal, pneumococcal, and streptococcal bacteria, and these same bacteria are present to a lesser extent in the entire respiratory tract. The distal gastrointesti-nal tract is especially loaded with colon bacilli. Fur-thermore, one can always find bacteria on the surfaces of the eyes, urethra, and vagina. Any decrease in the number of white blood cells immediately allows inva-sion of adjacent tissues by bacteria that are already present.
Within 2 days after the bone marrow stops produc-ing white blood cells, ulcers may appear in the mouth and colon, or the person might develop some form of severe respiratory infection. Bacteria from the ulcers rapidly invade surrounding tissues and the blood. Without treatment, death often ensues in less than a week after acute total leukopenia begins.
Irradiation of the body by x-rays or gamma rays, or exposure to drugs and chemicals that contain benzene or anthracene nuclei, is likely to cause aplasia of the bone marrow. Indeed, some common drugs, such as chloramphenicol (an antibiotic), thiouracil (used to treat thyrotoxicosis), and even various barbiturate hypnotics, on very rare occasions cause leukopenia, thus setting off the entire infectious sequence of this malady.
After moderate irradiation injury to the bone marrow, some stem cells, myeloblasts, and hemocyto-blasts may remain undestroyed in the marrow and are capable of regenerating the bone marrow, provided sufficient time is available. A patient properly treated with transfusions, plus antibiotics and other drugs to ward off infection, usually develops enough new bone marrow within weeks to months for blood cell con-centrations to return to normal.
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