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Basic hygiene works better than drugs

Antibiotics are so named because they destroy bacteria, certain fungi and some kinds of parasites. They are ineffective against viruses, which cause colds, acute bronchitis or the flu.

health and fitness Updated: Sep 18, 2010 23:52 IST

I’m secretly in awe of the superbug from India that has conquered the world. Unlike upstart viruses such as H1N1 (I am convinced the derogatory swine flu nomenclature will be traced back to a sleeper Indian superbug in the high-security labs of the Centers of Disease Control in Atlanta) and SARS (come on, is severe respiratory disease syndrome a name any self-respecting virus will aspire to?), superbugs such as the new one from India find their way into hospitals and clinics and attack people just when they think they are recovering and are at their most secure. It’s a plot worthy of Bond: sneak into the enemy citadel to seek and destroy.

So what makes these superbugs so powerful and feared? It’s people like us, who pop antibiotics at the first sign of fever for as long as a strip lasts or use leftover medication from the last time we fell ill. Equally responsible are doctors who want quick results and prescribe antibiotics even when they are not needed. They usually aren’t.

Antibiotics are so named because they destroy bacteria, certain fungi and some kinds of parasites. They are ineffective against viruses, which cause colds, acute bronchitis or the flu. Even some common bacterial ailments, such as mild ear infections, don’t benefit much from antibiotics.

Using antibiotics indiscriminately give bacteria the opportunity to work around the mechanism being used to destroy it, forcing doctors to prescribe stronger and more expensive medicines to cure infections. Simple infections are increasingly becoming difficult to treat and cause longer lasting illnesses and extended hospital stays despite use of expensive and often toxic medication.

Some resistant infections can cause death. Among the killer superbug is MRSA — or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus — that has moved out of hospitals to cause infections in healthy people.

Although the drug industry is working overtime to develop new drugs and treatments to keep pace with antibiotic-resistant strains, the bacteria are adapting quickly. A classic example is drug-resistant tuberculosis (TB) and extreme drug-resistant TB, which takes as much as two years to treat — as compared to six months for the normal strain — and causes severe side effects. The cost go up 100-fold.

Apart from creating drug resistance, antibiotics can cause long-lasting changes in the good bacteria living in the human gut. As changes in gut flora could increase the risk of some chronic diseases, such as inflammatory bowel syndrome, each course of antibiotics should be considered a trade-off between short-term benefit and long-term risk, said researchers from Stanford University in California on Friday. Comparison between people on two courses of the antibiotic ciprofloxacin over a 10-month period with those who were not showed disruption in gut health during each course of treatment.

In most cases, simple solutions are the best. Basic hygiene works better than drugs. Wash your hands with soap and water, especially when you’ve been in a public place, before touching food and after handling raw meat or poultry. This is as effective as expensive antibacterial soaps and wipes.

There are enough new and hard-to-treat infection taking over the world without help from you and me. The thought of being patient zero — the first known person to have got infected with a few virus or bacteria — is fame most of us can live without. Live, if we are lucky enough to survive it.

First Published: Sep 18, 2010 23:48 IST