If you’ve been following health news recently you may have heard the following scary phrases: nightmare bacteria, drug resistant bacteria, mcr-1 superbug. These terms are used simply to refer to the same thing: bacteria that have developed resistance to antibiotics we use to kill them. Sounds terrible, but in reality there are steps we all can take to prevent this and protect ourselves.
Last month it was reported that the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research found the first mcr-1 gene in the U.S. in a human, which was a novel discovery. Its novel only in that it was isolated from a human - (This gene was seen before in animals in China). The gene (mcr1) was found in an E. coli bacteria isolate which enables it to be resistant to an antibiotic, colistin, which is considered to be one of the “last line” antibiotic used to treat very serious infections. Luckily in this case the E. coli was able to be killed by another antibiotic. Last year we were all focused on the Ebola crisis which was absolutely devastating in W. Africa. The public in N. America was frightened, and the media coverage did not help. There was 1 death in the United States during the entire Ebola epidemic, and zero outbreaks. In light of the recent media coverage of this gene discovery, the public again is frightened and wants to protect themselves.
We use the terms “germs” and “bugs” interchangeably to describe any microbe that can cause disease. Microbes can be bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites. But what makes them super? These bugs, if you will, don’t behave themselves (7). They have developed resistance to our drugs. Some bacteria are resistant to multiple drugs. We have used antibiotics to kill bacteria since the 1940s when Penicillin was first introduced. Different types of antibiotics have been developed since the 1940s, but bacteria continue to evolve and learn to survive. “Simply the use of antibiotics is the single most important factor leading to antibiotic resistance around the world” (1).
Wash your hands. You read it correctly, wash your hands. It is that simple. Use hand sanitizers as directed. This is still the best and most effective thing we can do to halt the spread of germs and superbugs. Hand hygiene is the cornerstone of every successful infection control program. The CDC calls cleaning your hands: a ‘do it yourself vaccine’ (13). This helps keep you safe from germs, remove germs from your hands, and prevents spread of germs to others (13). Washing your hands is the best way for us to fight superbugs.
Hospitals are spending millions of dollars revolutionizing their hand hygiene protocols for medical staff to properly wash and sanitize their hands to protect the patients. But what about the patients? There isn’t a protocol in place for patients to wash and sanitize their hands. A study done by the University of Michigan found that a quarter of the patients they tested at discharge had some drug-resistant germs on their hands (11)! Patients are spreaders of superbugs (11). This is what healthcare professionals have argued for years (11). When patients are discharged they return home, to a long-term care facility, or rehab facility, these germs hitch a ride. Now patients have transported germs from the hospital setting to a community setting where they have the opportunity to spread, through unwashed hands.
Antibiotic resistance will continue to be a problem in the future simply because we use them and often times we over-use them when not necessary. While we can’t stop the fact that bacteria don’t behave, we can mitigate the risk of spread by advocating proper hand hygiene in the hospital setting and in the community setting. It is the best preventive measure we can all take and teach others.
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