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Super-duper bugs: cutting down on illness

By Gabby Katz

Section: Arts

April 15, 2011

Looking at the birds, bees, flowers and trees, all outside creatures are waking up and coming out in the emerging springtime. Though we all enjoy the occasional running mustache called “east-bugs” or a nice butterfly, there is a new kind of bug also emerging this time of year that isn’t quite so kind. These “superbugs” are not really bugs at all (I just like to be punny), but they are actually a type of bacteria that has resistance to many commonly used antibiotics that are currently infecting many.

These bacteria are really known as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), and they are resistant to beta-lactam antibiotics, which include penicillin and cephalosporin. According to the CDC, out of nine states (California, Connecticut, Georgia, Colorado, Maryland, Tennessee, New York, Minnesota and Oklahoma) 20 million people were infected in 2008 alone. Some scientists argue that we could be on the verge of a global epidemic.

People at risk include those who have weak immune systems, diabetics, intravenous drug users, young children, elderly people, college students who live in close quarters (ruh-roh!), health care facility workers and other people who spend a considerable amount of time in confined spaces, like prison inmates and wrestlers. A 2004 study showed that, on average, people infected with the bacteria have three times the length of a normal hospital stay, spend three times more than the average cost and have five times the risk of in-hospital death.

The bacterial strain usually colonizes in the nostrils, respiratory track, open wounds, intravenous catheters and urinary track. Symptoms usually begin with small, red bumps and a fever that worsen and evolve into pus-filled boils (delicious). Some variations of this strain can actually go straight to attacking vital organs and lead to toxic shock syndrome or necrotizing pneumonia, “flesh-eating bacteria,” which can be lethal. If caught early, there are some drugs available, along with specific symptom treatments that have a decent rate of treatment. Because of the fast-moving nature of the bacteria, it is very important to be aware of your risk, the signs and symptoms, as well as the preventative steps you can take to lower your risk. Most importantly, if you have any unusual symptoms as described, contact a physician immediately.

So, if you don’t feel like participating in the Passover plague of boils, how can you prevent contracting this? One way can be, if you are admitted into a hospital, make sure they have a sanitizing program that ensures all surfaces have been sanitized and that the hospital goes under routine inspections. Also, when you find yourself in the environments mentioned, it’s crucial to always wash your hands properly or rub vigorously with an alcohol-based rub. You can also restrict your antibiotic use and make certain that you really need them by asking the doctor of their necessity and alternatives. Lastly, if you know someone infected, do not come in direct contact until the doctors deem they are no longer contagious.

Although this type of bug is not going to crawl up your trousers on the Great Lawn, it is still something of which you should be aware and take precautionary measures when needed. Have a great April break and look forward to the long summer break that’s just around the corner! As always, tune in for more health tips and send me an e-mail at gkatz10@brandeis.edu with any health-related questions you may have.

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