What’s superbugging you?


You may be worried about a government shutdown, but I’m not.

I’m not worried about a shutdown because we’re all about to die anyway. Superbugs are going to kill us.

“Drug-resistant bacteria pose potential catastrophe, CDC warns” was The Washington Post’s headline last week about a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that did indeed use words such as “nightmare” and “catastrophic threat.”

“We’re just getting closer and closer to the cliff,” CDC official Michael Bell cautioned reporters in a conference call.

CDC Director Tom Frieden warned of being “thrust back to a time before we had effective drugs.”

They spoke of the infamous “flesh-eating bacteria,” but even that horrid streptococcus is a minor problem compared to the “urgent health threat” posed by Clostridium difficile, carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae and other nasties you most definitely don’t want to meet. There’s now even a superfungus — fluconazole-resistant Candida — that can kill you.

I reacted as I usually do to such reports. I covered myself head to toe in Purell, donned a respirator and hid under my bed. I was so concerned about the superbugs that I temporarily forgot to worry about avian flu and the deadly coronavirus coming from Saudi Arabia.

To help me keep track of these threats, my Post colleague Alan Sipress, author of a book on pandemic flu, suggested that I subscribe to ProMED, a daily email update from the International Society for Infectious Diseases. ProMED informs me that there have been four new cases of MERS (the Middle East respiratory syndrome), and that there’s a potentially problematic development with H7N9 influenza in China (not to be confused with H7N7 in Italy or H5N1 in Cambodia).

The trouble is, ProMED also introduces me to all kinds of threats I never thought to worry about. As I write this, the daily bulletin includes news of a paralytic shellfish poisoning in Australia, E. coli in Canadian cheese, waterborne diarrhea in Armenia, a superbug in Brazil, hemorrhagic fever in Uganda, hemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome in Russia, cholera and dysentery in Africa, something called “Meloidogyne enterolobii root knot” involving South African potatoes, and the dread “lumpy skin disease” related to bovines in Turkey.

Lest you think these are other countries’ problems, ProMED has word of salmonellosis at a North Carolina church barbecue, toxic algae in Ohio drinking water, people catching the flu from pigs in Arkansas and equine encephalitis from mosquitoes in Maine. There are contaminated oysters in Massachusetts and the bubonic plague in New Mexico. Still, I’d take those over the case in Bangladesh involving monkey-to-human transmission of “simian foamy virus.”

ProMED is a must-read for hypochondriacs like me, and I intend to keep reading about these exotic contagions until I succumb to the ravages of mad cow disease, which the government seems to think I have. (Regulations prohibit me and anybody else who lived in Britain between 1980 and 1996 from giving blood, out of concern that we may be carrying the mind-wasting illness.)

Reading about all the infectious threats actually eases the symptoms of germaphobia because you realize that, though there are lots of things out there that can kill you, they rarely do. Beneath the headlines about the CDC superbug catastrophe, for example, you learn in smaller print that only about one in 14,000 Americans will be killed by them in a year, and these people often have other health problems.

You also realize there’s not a whole lot an individual can do about all the infectious threats, other than washing your hands, cooking your food, getting vaccinated, using antibiotics properly and not kissing sick chickens.

Beyond that, we should all push our government to accelerate and expand what it’s already doing: getting antibiotics out of the food chain, by restricting their use in animals, and researching new drugs. As the CDC report notes, bacteria will inevitably evolve to resist antibiotics; the best we can do is slow down the evolution so scientists can stay one step ahead of the superbugs.

This is some of the most important work the federal government does, mostly through the National Institutes of Health: spurring the development of new antibiotics, vaccines for pandemic flu and treatments for all kinds of diseases. It saves and lengthens millions of lives, and it’s a public good that only government can provide — and only if government is up and running.

Come to think of it, maybe I should be worried about a government shutdown. It’s at least as much of a threat to my health as simian foamy virus.

© 2013, Washington Post Writers Group

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