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Combat the Latest Supergerms

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More and more bugs are becoming immune to the best drugs around, but there are plenty of things we can do to slow their spread. Here, five of the scariest threats right now, and what you can do to keep yourself -- and future generations -- safe

Combat The Latest Supergerms

Health.com's Ginny Graver:

When the swine flu burst onto the scene in April, the bug arrived with a few particularly ominous signs: The flu was resistant to a class of drugs often used to fight flu in the past, and experts were surprised that a nonhuman virus could have such rapid human-to-human transmission. Why was Swine Flu resistant to current medicines, and was this strain a new supergerm?

"Swine flu seems to respond to Tamiflu, but we weren't sure at first. And we're seeing more strains of other types of flu, including some bird flu, that are resistant to it. That's been sobering for lots of people in public health because Tamiflu is the drug the country has been stockpiling for a possible pandemic," she says. "The issue we're facing now is 'What do we do if the drugs we're counting on don't work?'"

This question is being asked with increasing urgency these days, as more and more bugs, including some truly nasty bacteria, become impervious to the effects of our best drugs. Acne and some STDs aren't clearing up the way they once did.

More worrisome, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) -- bacteria that are resistant to methicillin, a common antibiotic--now kills more people in U.S. hospitals than HIV, AIDS, and tuberculosis combined. And, scarier still, the bug is becoming increasingly common outside of hospitals, affecting everyone from infants with ear infections to young, healthy athletes. And MRSA, experts warn, is just the tip of the drug-resistance iceberg.

"Drug-resistant bacteria have developed in large part because of our overuse and misuse of antibiotics--and it has led us to a crisis point," says Helen W. Boucher, MD, a specialist in the division of infectious diseases at Tufts Medical Center in Boston. "We're even seeing bugs today that are resistant to all antibiotics."

But while some germs may be outpacing our ability to kill them, we're not completely defenseless. In fact, there are plenty of things we can do to slow their spread. Here, five of the scariest threats right now, and what you can do to keep yourself--and future generations--safe.

1. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)
In December 2005, when 14-month-old Bryce Smith came down with a cold--his first ever--the pediatrician told his mom he'd feel better in a few days. He didn't feel better, and by New Year's Day Bryce was in the emergency room. An X-ray showed that he had pneumonia, and a CT scan revealed something even scarier: His right lung was filled with a thick, gelatinous fluid.

The doctors rushed the baby into surgery, where they discovered he was infected with MRSA -- and the infection was so severe that it had eaten a hole through his lung. After 40 days on vancomycin, a superpotent antibiotic that can affect kids' hearing, Bryce pulled through. "But we're still worried about his hearing and how much damage the bacteria did to his lungs," his mom says.

Bryce's story is scary because it reflects a trend. "It's most worrisome that MRSA can infect completely healthy people with healthy lifestyles, something that was almost unheard of 15 years ago," Dr. Boucher says. About 12% of infections strike people who aren't hospitalized, a percentage that is likely to increase as MRSA becomes more widespread.

Currently, about 40% of us have staph bacteria on our skin -- and it rarely causes a problem. But about 60 to 70% of staph in U.S. hospitals has developed resistance to methicillin. Worse, a small percentage of the bugs are now resistant to vancomycin, the drug that saved Bryce's life.

Although MRSA can cause pneumonia and blood infections and has recently been linked to children's ear and sinus infections, it most often causes skin and soft-tissue abscesses. A MRSA infection looks like a pimple, boil, or spider bite, but it may quickly worsen into an abscess or pus-filled blister or sore. To protect yourself:

1. Shun the staph. Wash your hands, especially after you've been in public places and touched handrails, grocery-cart handles, and other frequently handled objects. Experts estimate that staph is present on 2 to 3% of surfaces in public places--more in hospitals. Regular soap and water will remove most germs. Alcohol gels or wipes and antibacterial soap work, too, but there's a chance that antibacterial soap contributes to antibiotic resistance, so it makes sense to avoid it.

2. Cover up. Bandage all cuts, even paper cuts and blisters. Sterilize the stetho. Researchers recently found that one in three stethoscopes used by emergency-medical-service providers was contaminated with MRSA. Ask your doc to swab his scope with alcohol.

3. De-germ the gym. Use a disinfectant wipe to swab the handlebars of equipment, and drape a clean towel over shared yoga mats and sauna and locker room benches. After each workout in a group environment, take a shower, soaping up thoroughly--and be sure your kids who play sports do, too.

4. Don't share. You're at increased risk of MRSA if you share razors, soap, towels, or other personal items. Schools, day-care centers, and gyms may harbor the germ--one reason it's important to get children in the hand-washing habit.

For more supergerms and what to do about them, visit health.com


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