Sign up for our Headlines morning newsletter.

The most interesting things on the web, handpicked each day. Sign up for our Headlines morning newsletter.

In Hindsight

The Superbug

In 2007 news headlines pointed many directions, but rarely long enough at the plague that’s creeping up our doorstep. Here’s the year of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus asureus—aka, the superbug.

This year, there were a lot of super things going on. Asian golf organized a super tour. NATO discussed putting together a super envoy to coordinate civilian and military efforts in Afghanistan. There was a Super Bowl and at least a few movies about superheroes. But as we know from the super hurricane in Fiji and the super-jail planned for London, just because it’s super doesn’t mean it’s what people want. And in 2007 that was certainly the case for the Superbug. If we didn’t know it in 2006 when 19,000 people died from antibiotic-resistant staph infections, we sure know now: There is a superbug out there called methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus asureus—or MRSA—and it’s lurking in hospitals, hiding in schools, skulking about in nursing homes and dirty office desks, just waiting to give us an easily treatable skin infection.

Although MRSA has been around since 1995, in 2007 we learned countless new facts and figures about the bacteria as it carved its way through the world’s open sores and bloodstreams. Sure, it’s usually easy enough to treat, but if it infects open wounds it can cause necrotizing pneumonia that destroys lung tissue and kills 75 percent of those infected—within 24 hours.

So we are not messing around with this grim reaper of a single-celled organism. And national initiatives have been formed to beat it into submission. For example, there was a 2004 target to half MRSA by 2008. Lofty, brave, and proactive, this target undoubtedly put people’s minds at ease. Until Jan. 11, when the BBC reported a leaked memo stating that the target would not be met and naturally, the public was rather upset about this information. Luckily the NHS memo had a lot of good suggestions on “handling” the failed target, due to the fact that the plan had already been “publicly announced by ministers, including to Parliament, on many occasions.”

The NHS should have just pointed to the Norfolk hospital that, the very next day, was reported to be winning the fight against MRSA.

 

* * *


What will happen when we run out of the antibiotics used to treat MRSA? According to a Jan. 9 story in The Guardian, we could face a “post-antibiotic apocalypse”; drug companies agree on the “urgent need” for more MRSA-battling antibiotics. But pretending the superbug isn’t there won’t make it go away, and failure to report deaths from MRSA, like the Sept. 7 oversight at Mayo General Hospital in Ireland, really won’t do anything to help the problem. This is not a case of what you can’t see can’t hurt you. The superbug is microscopic—like your cells, which it explodes. Like a microscopic nuclear weapon.

Germ-resistant products lead to germ-resistant bacteria. In essence, the drugs are just making it stronger. It’s not called the superbug for nothing. And it just keeps on killing children in cold blood—this year schools became MRSA targets. Among the thousands infected were a 12-year-old from Victoria, Texas, who was hospitalized with a 107-degree fever and MRSA in her bloodstream, bones, and lungs. And in October, a Brooklyn middle-schooler died of a staph infection. In Virginia, 22 schools closed after an otherwise healthy 17-year-old student died from the superbug and the news offered plenty of preventative measures for parents to fixate on. Indeed, this year superintendents, principals, and school boards were sent before a firing squad of worried parents.

 

* * *


Schools are not where MRSA really thrives: Hospitals are its preferred place to take up residence. But even there, superbug rates are falling. Between April and November of this year, there were 17 cases of hospital-acquired MRSA—compared to 50 between April and November of 2003.

Why the downswing? Various regulations have been put into place, like keeping the alpacas out and selling pajamas with magic silver thread that kills bacteria. Another hospital will clothe their doctors in uniforms designed to prevent the spread of infection, another plans anti-MRSA isolation wards, and another is adding new “fresh air” machines.

OK, but say you’re not in the hospital and you want to protect yourself. In fact, money that could have been spent on equipping hospitals and developing medications to avoid the ensuing hysteria was instead used for a hand-washing campaign. Don’t wash your hands too much, though: Germ-resistant products lead to germ-resistant bacteria. And in essence, the drugs are just making it stronger. It’s not called the superbug for nothing.

In the meantime, keep clear of both poker chips and tea tree oil. Maybe take a break from the workout, too, and eat superfoods like beer, butter, and chocolate. They’re good for you.

Or just do the sensible thing and get yourself a DNA decoy and trick that superbug. It’s what your superhero alter ego would do.
 

biopic

TMN Editor Nicole Pasulka believes she could beat a lie detector. When she sits in a chair she almost never puts her feet on the floor. Even though she likes the internet a lot, she is convinced that people will always read magazines and she is secretly building one in her basement. More by Nicole Pasulka