Antibiotics and Super Bacteria

Two weeks ago, a local 18-year-old athlete died from MRSA. MRSA is a bad-ass form of staph that is resistant to most antibiotics. This kid – young and strong – was brought down by this bacteria. Now, at least one other student at his school has been diagnosed with the same infection (but it looks like he’ll survive).

As most of you know, I am currently recovering from major surgery that removed all known cancer from my body. Strangely enough – while I was in the hospital I was less concerned about the trauma of the surgery than I was about getting a hospital-borne infection of a “super bacteria.” I was completely paranoid and insisted that every person who walked into my room wash their hands before they entered. Nurses rolled their eyes at me when I made them follow sterile procedure to the letter when they were attending to me.

(Side note: the scope of unsanitary procedure in a hospital is ENORMOUS. All of my nurses save one did NOT follow sterile procedure and I had to shoo them out until they did.)

I was so paranoid about infection that I pretended I was better than I was so I could get released early. A mistake in that I was still very weak and probably needed the care and attention of a hospital – but I’d rather be weak at home than get an infection in the hospital.

Anyway, my ordeal reminded me of a short commentary I wrote a few years ago about this very subject and I thought I’d share it here. Read it and comment, please.

Antibiotics and Super Bacteria

Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1929. It was an accident that changed the world overnight. Simply, he forgot about a sample of bacteria he had left under a microscope in his lab at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, London.

When he later remembered his bacteria, he was surprised to discover that a substance called penicillum had stopped the spread of the bacteria on his slide. This was the birth of antibiotic medicine. Infectious disease was on its last legs – or so we thought.

The ubiquitous use of antibiotics to unnecessarily battle even mild infections has, over the decades, produced antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. Over the past few years, it has become increasingly difficult to combat bacteria and many fear we are losing the battle.

What happened?

Simply put, bacteria have evolved. Assaulted on all fronts with antibacterial drugs by mankind, bacteria were forced to adapt or perish. Mankind, on a global scale, has performed a giant artificial selection experiment on bacteria and has forced them to adapt.

Today, Staph, Strep, E.Coli, and other bacteria are on the rise again. Infections are increasingly hard to fight as resistant strains of these bacteria are on the rise. More and more people die each year from once-treatable infections.

It’s frightening the way bacteria adapt. Mutation comes into play, but that is not the only way resistance is passed on. Bacteria can adapt in one of three ways.

1. Spontaneous mutation. After generations of artificial selection through overuse of antibiotics, a mutant strain may appear that is resistant. It passes this resistance to its progeny. This is the method by which tuberculosis is again on the rise.

2. Microbial sex. Also called transformation, one bacterium may swap DNA with another. This is a favorite method of penicillin-resistant gonorrhea.

3. Plasmids. Plasmids are a small circle of DNA that travels freely between bacteria of various types. They may carry multiple resistances. In 1968, over 12,000 Guatemalans died from Shigella diarrhea, caused by a microbe harboring a plasmid that conferred resistances to four antibiotics.

We’re rapidly reaching the point where antibiotics are becoming ineffectual. The effective life of an antibiotic is shorter each year. The bacteria are getting better at adapting.

So what do we do? I have a number of suggestions:

First. Obviously we must stop the ubiquitous use of antibiotics. When you go to the doctor for a cold, do not ask for antibiotics. A cold is a viral infection and antibiotics have no effect on them.

Second, governments should regulate the use of antibiotics more stringently. Doctors who prescribe antibiotics unnecessarily should be called out and asked to justify the decision.

Third, don’t buy antibacterial soap! Simple soap and water is just as effective and does not force bacteria to fight back and find resistances.

Fourth, when you are prescribed antibiotics – make sure you are getting a targeted antibiotic. A targeted antibiotic has been developed for a specific infection and usually does not trigger resistance among other strains of bacteria in your body.

Fifth, hospitals need to be more conscious of fighting infection in the operating room. Dennis Maki, a University of Wisconsin Hospital specialist in hospital-transmitted infections, showed that coating intravenous catheters with antiseptic reduced infections by 80 percent.

Lastly, don’t run to the doctor every time you have an earache or a minor urinary track infection (UTI). Give your body a chance to fight it naturally. If you have a UTI, drink cranberry juice. It reduces the ability of the bacteria to cling to your intestinal track and helps reduce the number of infected bacteria in your body. Simply, you urinate them out.

Of course, if the symptoms don’t disappear after a week you should seek medical attention.

Infections are on the rise. Bacteria are becoming more and more resistant. Drugs are no longer as effective as they used to be. This could have been averted had we used foresight in the application of antibiotic drugs. Now, we’re stuck cleaning up the mess and trying to adapt ourselves.

We declared war on bacteria in 1929. We got the jump on them, but we grew complacent. Now, they’re fighting back. It’s not them, but us, that is against the ropes now.

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