Thursday, October 25, 2007

It's a bird, it's a plane, it's...Super Bug!

Okay, everyone just take a deep breath and calm down. Do not panic. I repeat: do not panic.

I can't turn around these past few days without being bombarded with stories about the Super Bug. It's on our local news, in our newspapers, on the national's everywhere! From what the media says, we're on the verge of an epidemic of rotting flesh, amputations, and mass casualties. They exaggerate, believe me.

See over there to the left, where I write that I'm a microbiologist? I've been doing this for over twenty years now, and this so-called Super Bug is nothing new. It is actually called Methicillin Resistant Staph Aureus, or MRSA, and we've been seeing it for decades. Previously, we only saw it as a hospital-acquired infection, usually after surgery, and what is different now is that it is becoming prevalent in the community. I would say that about 40% of our Staph aureus isolates are resistant to methicillin, so it is neither new nor rare.

I'm not completely downplaying this: it is a very serious bacterial infection, and should not be ignored. You can protect yourself by some very simple measures. The most important thing is to wash your hands. A LOT. Don't share towels, and make sure your gym wipes down the equipment. If you get a cut or nick, clean it thoroughly, put some antibiotic ointment on it, and cover it loosely. If you notice it getting red and not healing, go to your local clinic and get antibiotics. Yes, it is a nasty bug, resistant to many antibiotics, but one antibiotic it is almost always susceptible to is Bactrim, and that's an inexpensive and easy-to-take antibiotic. If you treat it before it gets too bad, chances are good you will be just fine and in possession of all your limbs. Just use some common sense and again, wash your hands!

This has been a public service announcement. Now comes the part where I get cranky.

I can't tell you how many times a media sensation has resulted in a health care panic, with a resultant massive increase in our workload at the lab (and I'm sure at other labs throughout the country). First it was anthrax. Anytime someone found a little spilled coffee creamer at the office, or a flour bag leaking at the grocery store,we would get a call from the Fire Department and have to test the "suspicious powder" for anthrax. Then one year it was an influenza outbreak. It was so prevalent throughout the country and especially in our area that doctors were advised to assume that a patient with the appropriate symptoms had influenza, and if it were within the 48-hour time frame, to treat them with Tamiflu. No such luck--they wanted to have their patients tested, and they wanted it yesterday, and we'd spend well over 10 hours a day doing nothing but flu testing.

After that, it was a pertussis (AKA whooping cough) outbreak. Again, young kids with symptoms need to be treated right away, but every kid with any kind of a cough got a pertussis test (and often an influenza test, just to cover all the bases). I understand that the media has a responsibility to let the public know about outbreaks, but whenever we hear something like that on the news, a collective groan goes up at the lab. We know it will send our workload through the roof. I think it was a good thing that the media tried to inform the public about MRSA, but I wish to hell they didn't have to be so sensationalistic about it. It's not a matter of if you get it, you'll die! It's a tough bug, but it IS treatable, and we all bear a certain amount of responsibility to protect ourselves. I guess a story about "flesh-eating bacteria" is a little more exciting ("glamorous" would probably be stretching it) than a simple informational story about what it is and how frequent handwashing can help prevent it.

But as always, the media and sensationalism walk hand-in-hand. Thanks for the job security, Media. Please don't bother checking into other nasty bugs I deal with every day, because we've got plenty of work already.

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