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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    MRSA outbreak highlights key microbial issues

    The Sunnyside Unified School District has an icky problem on its hands. Three cases of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus have been reported at Desert View High School in the past few weeks. MRSA is a bacterial infection that is resistant to many antibiotics, which makes it extremely difficult to treat. So who’s responsible for this superbug? A group of bioterrorists in Siberia? Actually, it’s you and me and our love of all things antibiotic.

    Bacterial resistance to antibiotics is the ability of a microorganism to withstand the effects of antibiotics. It evolves as natural selection acts upon random mutation, but it can also be engineered quickly with the aid of an evolutionary pressure – namely, the overuse or misuse of antibiotics. Simply put, bacteria evolve defenses against our defenses, and they do it more quickly than we can find new ways to kill them.

    The cases at Desert View highlight two much larger issues: our irrational fear of bacteria and the overuse of antibiotics. Triclosan, an antibacterial agent, is a good indicator of our fear of bacteria. It’s in soaps, acne cleansers, deodorants, toothpastes, shaving creams, mouthwashes and cleaning supplies. Triclosan is infused in a number of consumer products such as kitchen utensils, toys, bedding, socks and trash bags. It’s everywhere because we’re terrified of bacteria.

    Dr. Richard Besser of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asserts, however, that there is no benefit in buying such household goods as hand soap, mattresses and toys that include antibacterial agents. “”Those products will not improve your health,”” he says. Instead, he advocates using plain old soap and water to wash your hands. But we still slather on the triclosan and chant, “”Death to bacteria!”” But why? Because bacteria are bad and evil and out to kill us. Or so we think.

    We fail to make an important distinction with regard to bacteria: some are harmful and others are not. Our bodies are made up of roughly 10 trillion cells (I counted them . . . twice). That’s a hefty number, but we actually have 10 times that number of microorganisms living in our gut. Most of these guys are friend, not foe, and they perform a wide range of useful functions. They help us ferment and absorb carbohydrates, enhance the absorption and storage of lipids, produce and absorb vitamins and other nutrients, prevent harmful bacteria from colonizing the gut and so forth. So yes, we should be wary of bacteria like MRSA, but we should also recognize and appreciate the benefits that mutualistic bacteria confer.

    Second, there’s this looming issue of antibiotic overuse and misuse, Dr. Lauri Hicks of the CDC outlines as “”over-prescribing antibiotics, using a broad-spectrum therapy when a more specific drug would be better, starting and stopping medications, giving leftover medications to a friend who appears to have the same ailment you had.”” According to the CDC, one-third of the 150 million outpatient prescriptions for antibiotics written each year in the United States are unnecessary.

    We simply don’t trust our own immune systems to function properly. WebMD has made us all hypochondriacs who panic at the first sign of trouble. For instance, we get the flu and rush our dying selves to Campus Health. Then, we leave the clinic with a prescription for some broad-spectrum antibiotic feeling like we might actually live to see another day. The antibiotics won’t help us combat the flu any more than Tic-Tacs will since viruses, not bacteria, cause the flu. Still, antibiotics are dangerous since they select more virulent and more drug-resistant strains of bacteria that are present in our digestive tracts.

    But the problem doesn’t stop there. We love our antibiotics so much that we feed them to livestock in order to promote growth and to compensate for overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. In fact, nearly 70 percent of all antibiotics used in the U.S. are given to animals that are disease-free. The Los Angeles Times ran a piece this past May that cited the overuse of antibiotics in livestock production as “”a major contributor to the creation of drug-resistant bacteria and thus a direct assault on human health.”” Clearly, this use of antibiotics is nonsensical and detrimental to our health, and yet it’s a practice that still persists.

    In light of all of this, we need to realize that bacteria are everywhere and we cannot kill them all, nor do we want to. Instead, we need to use antibiotics appropriately and cautiously. Maybe then outbreaks of drug-resistant bacteria won’t plague our schools. Until that day, though, we will continue to fight a losing battle against the superbugs we’ve created.

    – Justin Huggins is a senior majoring in ecology and evolutionary biology. He can be reached at

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