NOW COMES THE SUPERBUG. The news media has been infected with reports of the superdeadly form of Staphylococcus aureus, in particular the surprisingly high death toll attributable to this germ in 2005. JAMA published the results today, which indicated that this methicillin-resistant Staph. aureus, or MRSA, slipped through our standard antibiotic pickets to infect over 94,000 people two years ago, killing a fifth of them. Assisting this story's spread is news that a Virginia teenager succumbed to this bug on Monday, prompting a mass closure of schools in the area.
Drug-resistant infections are no joke but should be no surprise. You can expect to find bacteria-killing hand soap in just about every American kitchen and bathroom. Reports periodically filter out (sometimes sponsored by antiseptics manufacturers) on the nightmarish germ traps that our computer keyboards harbor. With this frantic all-front jihad against hostile microorganisms, it's simple Darwinism to predict that some bugs will survive. And now that a media connection to children at risk has been made, the nation will add another layer of bubble-wrapping to their already overprotected children.
A lot of dollars are being sunk into pointless overkill that is only making the problem worse. Common folks already possess a potent weapon against all bugs: Wash your hands with hot water and soap. No need to go apeshit with the preop-grade disinfectant. Just be smarter about controlling the most common routes of infection. Most people know not to touch their mouths after contacting germs, for instance, but they don't make the same connection when it comes to avoiding contact with other mucous membranes, particularly the eyes.
I'm not making light of this problem as it currently affects hospitals and nursing homes, to say nothing of prisons. Anywhere you have a static concentration of people, even a casino or cruise ship, you risk outbreaks of nasty shit like Legionnaire's disease and norovirus. Anyone who's seen the gruesomely septic poker chips at Atlantic City's Trump Taj Mahal will agree that too many hands can literally spoil the pot. But some casinos are already installing Purell dispensers, which have an advantage over the bactericidal soaps in that they destroy organisms with alcohol, rather than targeting their genetics or reproduction.
A local A&P recently relaunched itself as a food-porn Whole Foods clone. Visitors during its grand reopening received a generic bottle of alcohol solution. As a frequent casino habitué, and a player in a home game in which players don't let any medical condition save a missing accelerator foot stop them from playing each week, I happily accepted the gift. I don't intend to wall myself away from the horrors of MRSA, but I will stay vigilant with the simple hygiene expedients I was taught as a child.
UPDATE 10/18/07: Jim Macdonald, EMT and occasional medical commentator on the excellent Making Light blog, has a post up about the art and science of washing your hands. Aside from the trial and salvation of a newbie, there's some good discussion there on the topics on which I, above, only touch. Specifically, the main value of soap appears to be the ability to expedite the physical removal of germs by water. Also some hints about immunity in germs to the most common antibacterial compound in soaps touted for that purpose.