Remember when antibacterial soaps were all the rage? All of us feeling proud of our über-clean, germ-free hands?
Those were good times — right up until the bacteria went nuclear and started becoming resistant to every available antibiotic we have at our disposal.
Remember when, if you got an infection, you could go to the hospital, get some heavy duty antibiotics to kill it, and head home barely the worse for wear?
Those were good times — right up until a Reno woman died from a superbug infection that didn’t respond to any of the 26 antibiotics doctors threw at it.
My husband, a health and biology freak, has been telling me about superbugs for years. He made us stop buying the antibacterial soap long before the FDA started banning it. And once he explained the science of it, I understood why.
For those of us who are not totally up on our microbiology knowledge, bacteria is not always a bad thing. There are good bacteria and bad bacteria, with bad bacteria causing diseases such as tuberculosis, cholera, pneumonia, strep throat, and other infections.
Obviously, the bad bacteria are the ones that freak us out (germs!) and cause us to reach for antibacterial/antimicrobial (same thing) soaps.
But as it turns out, bacteria are tricky little buggers. Contrary to popular belief, antibacterial chemicals are not present in high enough amounts in antibacterial soaps to kill bacteria any more effectively than plain old soap and water. But they are present in high enough amounts to spark a sort of adaptive instinct in the bacteria. Basically, a small posse of bacteria who are a little more brazen than the rest say, “Bring it!” to those chemicals and use the challenge as an opportunity to get stronger. They build endurance. They learn to resist. And then those stronger bacteria live on while their weaker counterparts die off.
To make matters worse, resistance to antibacterial chemicals can lead to resistance to certain antibiotics. This phenomenon is called “cross-resistance.” It’s like the microbes form a freaking scary army with impenetrable armor. And then we end up with a superbug — an Iron Man of bacteria, if you will — which can withstand the strongest antibiotics humans have managed to come up with.
I don’t mean to make light of the situation. It’s scary as hell. Bacterial infections are not terribly uncommon, and some people even pick them up in hospitals after being admitted for other illnesses. Antibiotics have been one of humanity’s most important discoveries, and we’ve lived for much of the last century feeling safe in their effectiveness. Before antibiotics, a simple infection could be a death sentence.
Now it appears that certain infections can be a death sentence once more. Only one person in the U.S. has been killed by a superbug that was totally resistant to all known antibiotics. But scientists warn that resistant bacteria is more widespread than previously thought, and that a “riot of diversity” among them may be cause for alarm. “Riot of Diversity” might be a great band name, but it’s a rather disturbing descriptor for microscopic things that are out to kill us.
It doesn’t do any good to panic, of course. There’s not really a whole lot the average citizen can do about these superbugs. We have to trust that scientists are duking it out with these bacteria in the lab as best they can.
I suppose the one thing we can do is to ditch the antibacterial soap idea for good. We don’t need to add more ammunition to the superbug army any more than we already have.
How ironic that our fear of bacteria has only made it stronger. I think there’s a life lesson in there somewhere.