Superbug

I’m an ordinary guy with a minor super-power: I rarely get a cold, or a sore throat, or even much of a cough. I have 600 hours of accumulated sick time, and rising.

For this superpower, I have to thank to the second-grade class that I student-taught, over a decade back.  The idea was to get a teaching credential and then switch careers.  It didn’t work out, but the memories will be with me always. And apparently, the immunity.

You know how kids are: they’re still building their defenses to the diseases of the world.  In the meantime, they sneeze, they spew, they drip, and they leak. And then they wipe it all up with their hands and borrow your white-board marker.  And give it back.  I had a head cold for four months.  More precisely,  I had head cold after head cold for four months.

Eventually, I had them all.  Every variety. There was nothing left to have.  I felt normal again.  Months went by and I didn’t get sick.  Then years. I was bulletproof!

More years later, the bullets are hitting a little harder than they used to; rhinoviruses mutate like no one’s business. But I remain mostly snot-free with the help of a few tricks: a slice of raw onion to suck on, for a sore throat; a tumbler of warm water spiked with tabasco for clogged sinuses.

And I learned to never, ever, ever touch your face unless you’ve washed your hands, first.  Ever. An old master teacher taught me that one.  Your eyes may be the windows to your soul but viruses and bacteria clamber through them — and your mouth, and nose — to get at your body.

I learned to go an hour without rubbing my eyes, no matter how badly they wanted me to. Horrible things lurked in the classroom: Flu. Impetigo. Noro. Rotavirus. Hep. Strep. Worms. And more. Someone posted a list of them all by the sink in the teacher’s washroom, under the command WASH YOUR HANDS. And I did. And I do.

So you might think I’ve kind of got it all handled, this infection thing. But I don’t.  In recent years I’ve had staph in one foot — it swelled up like a football.  Just from a tiny scratch.  They call it a skin infection, cellulitis. But if the staph had reached my bloodstream I might not be writing this.

A year or three later, I laid bare a leaking pipe by bailing water out of a hole in the ground.  I forgot to wear gloves.  A few days later I found myself on an operating table with a hand surgeon bending over me.  His mission: save my thumb above the knuckle, else I’d be nine-finger touch-typing for the rest of my life.  He succeeded.

Yes, I’m careless.  But those bacteria had help.  From all of us.

The urgent-care MD who checked my swollen foot was pretty sure it had a brand of staph called MSRA.  For safety she could assume nothing else because MRSA is a super-staph that looks at most penicillin -type antibiotics and laughs. It has jousted with our antibiotics for decades, and only grown stronger.

The MD gave me an old-school sulfa drug that she said still worked.  It did.  But does it still?

The bug that tried to take my thumb was some random form of strep, the tests said.  Or was it? The primary care doctor had dispensed some basic antibiotics that didn’t help one bit.  It wasn’t long before my thumb was dripping pus in the emergency room and pissing off the ER doctor.

Even after the operation, they kept me another day to drip vancomycin into my bod and hope that it would handle any nasties that might catch a ride into my system.  Vancomycin is the bad-ass antibiotic that used to the last line of defense against MRSA.  These days, maybe not.

Before I checked out, an elderly wound nurse came by my hospital room and said terrible things about bacterial adaption.  Your own backyard isn’t safe, she said.  Wear gloves, always, she said, in the backyard or even when cleaning house.  “It’s not the old days anymore,” she said gloomily.  “The bacteria are winning.”

On her way. out, she made a few cheery comments about hoping that she’d die before it all went to hell.  Pretty much in those words.

So the germs are winning.  Maybe antibiotics were always a loser’s game.  We were sloppy, and overconfident, and the bacteria had more tricks up their sleeves than we ever expected.  If bacteria have sleeves.

And yet, we’re not trying to keep up.  Few new antibiotics are in development. Big Pharma has walked away from the problem.  Oh, the job’s not impossible: but antibiotics are expensive to develop, and not wildly profitable.

After all, you only need antibiotics once in awhile.  The investors want drugs that you’ll need every day, forever. An anti-baldness drug? A better erectile drug? Bring it!

Funny, isn’t it?  I cope well with the common cold — with all the viruses that mankind never learned to cure.  It’s the viruses we did learn to cure  — and then treated lightly — that are coming back to eat us.

Good job, humanity.  You’ve painted yourself into a corner — again. To paraphrase Winston Churchill: I trust that we will collectively do the right thing…

..When all else has failed.

6 thoughts on “Superbug

  1. Forrest

    I’m wintering in Mexico. Talk about some serious bugs, they have all you can want right in front of you! Good to see you’re still at the keyboard again.

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      Thanks, Forrest. I’m trying to write more again. Wintering in Mexico? Wish I was there. Enjoy yourself.

      Reply
  2. Blissex

    «We were sloppy, and overconfident, and the bacteria had more tricks up their sleeves than we ever expected.»

    it is the eternal game of armor and gun, or prey and predator, and it can go slow or fast, and it has gone fast becase “we”, collectively, asset-stripped the farmacopeia common, as fast as we could. This is from Ian Fleming’s acceptance speech in 1945 for the Nobel prize he got for discovering penicillin:

    http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/1945/fleming-lecture.pdf
    But I would like to sound one note of warning. Penicillin is to all intents and purposes non-poisonous so there is no need to worry about giving an overdose and poisoning the patient. There may be a danger, though, in underdosage. It is not difficult to make microbes resistant to penicillin in the laboratory by exposing them to concentrations not sufficient to kill them, and the same thing has occasionally happened in the body.
    The time may come when penicillin can be bought by anyone in the shops. Then there is the danger that the ignorant man may easily underdose himself and by exposing his microbes to non-lethal quantities of the drug make them resistant. Here is a hypothetical illustration. Mr. X. has a sore throat. He buys some penicillin and gives himself, not enough to kill the streptococci but enough to educate them to resist penicillin. He then infects his wife. Mrs. X gets pneumonia and is treated with penicillin. As the streptococci are now resistant to penicillin the treatment fails. Mrs. X dies. Who is primarily responsible for Mrs. X’s death? Why Mr. X whose negligent use of penicillin changed the nature of the microbe. Moral: If you use penicillin, use enough.

    This issue was deeply and well understood 70 years ago…

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      A couple of years ago I had a conversation with a retired nurse in her late ’90s — still mentally and physically capable — who had been in practice both before and after antibiotics were rolled out to the general public. Before antibiotics, procedures for cleanliness and sterilization in the treatment areas were absolute and strictly kept. But as soon as antibiotics became available, the standards relaxed. A little something dripped? Relax, the doctors would tell her — the antibiotics will take care of it. Her word for it all was “arrogance.”

      Reply
  3. lk

    A few years ago, CC and I were sick thru the entire month of December. Chills, fever, coughing, runny noses, the whole bit; we were a couple of miserable sickies. Never got around to putting up the Christmas tree or doing much of any shopping, or anything else holiday-related. On Christmas morning, I told CC “This has to end. Let’s go to the hospital. It’s not going to be busy so what better time to get checked out and maybe get over this horrible illness.” We’re with Kaiser, so we drove over to the nearest one, and got taken into the examination rooms immediately – other than a doctor and a couple of nurses, there was no one else there.

    Turns out we were almost over our respective diseases and all we needed to feel better was antihistamine pills. There aren’t any real antivirus meds available for colds and flu shots were too late to help us at that point. I was mostly thinking that we might have bronchitis or something else bacterial that could be dealt with by antibiotics. But lately, it’s sounding more and more like a good way to avoid getting an infection is to avoid the hospitals.

    I have a book customer who loves to read end-of-the-world stories. She especially likes novels about deadly viruses wiping out most (or all) of humanity. She apparently believes it is only a matter of time before that happens. I think she’s infected me with this notion.

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      LK:

      It’s always the human way: get on top of a problem, proclaim it solved forever, get slack, and the problem returns bigger and better. It takes a plague, or something like it, to reset the cycle. Nice and neat, except for all the human misery. God, that’s grim. But I’m about to go into a staff meeting, so that probably explains it ;-)

      Reply

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