The latest news on superbugs is a real whopper. According to researchers in Wales, hospital detergent wipes, intended to clean the bacteria away, may in fact be spreading them from here to there, like moving a small pile of swept dust from one corner of the floor to another.
In the article from an upcoming volume of the prestigious U.S. medical monthly, the American Journal of Infection Control, the researchers tested detergent wipes under lab-created conditions. Specific amounts of laboratory strains of often highly resistant bacteria, including Staph aureus, C difficile, and Acinetobacter, were spiked onto a stainless steel surface. Researchers then worked the surface for 10 seconds with one of seven different “detergent wipes” then re-cultured the area to see what bugs remained.
The answer: plenty—though all of the wipes did indeed reduce overall bacterial density, the reduction was not consistent, varying from a 10-fold to a 1000-fold kill. Furthermore, and the real headline-grabber here, the physical act of wiping accidentally pushed the bacteria around, spreading them across the surface.
The senior author of the article, Jean-Yves Maillard, is an expert in the field of determining just how well various detergents and germicidal agents work. He has published on the issue for 20 years and produced almost 100 articles, most dealing with his—and everyone’s—concern that the wipes aren’t all they are promised to be. Even with strong detergent and a good bit of elbow grease the bacteria prove not-so-easy to vanquish.
It is alas no surprise. Two of the bacteria he tested—C difficile and Acinetobacter—are famously stubborn to eradicate from the environment. Indeed, C difficile, currently public enemy number one, lives in the environment in a spore-form, similar to anthrax. One only need recall the many months it took to fully sterilize the Hart Senate building in 2001, after anthrax was introduced, to appreciate how tenacious spore-based bacteria can be. And Acinetobacter, though not a spore-former, is every bit as persistent once it has settled in the environment.
Maillard’s work is important—resistant bacteria kill thousands of people in the U.S. each year and many more worldwide. Each case has its own story, its own heartbroken family. Resistant bacteria seem to be thriving these days because of a combination of antibiotic overuse by humans, antibiotics in animal feed and the bacteria’s Darwinian movement towards survival.
Yet all the attention to drug-resistant bacteria, and the current Purell-ization of a populace terrified of bacteria, is a bit misplaced, or perhaps humanity is victim of a Stockholm Syndrome attitude towards the microbes. Superbugs, like superheroes and superstars, have become larger than life, possessed of special powers, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. In this guise, rather than more evil they have become more admirable, more, well, “super” —a special always-awed word we reserve for Walmart, political action committees, and important football games.
Surely resistant bacteria deserve non-stop, highly resourced attention from scientists, such as Dr. Maillard, who are trained to worry and explore. His work has demonstrated that the notion of simply wiping our cares away just will not work. The bacteria are here to stay. And make no mistake—the bacteria represent an enormous threat to already sick, hospitalized patients, especially those requiring treatment in intensive care units.
But there is a danger in the popular press grabbing hold of this line of inquiry. Here’s why: there is an adage (that I am just now introducing) which states this: in every health problem, sooner or later, the doctors end up looking like schlemiels. Ich bin ein George Costanza.
Sure there is a comforting smugness to assigning yet another hare-brained idea to the dust-bin of dip-shit initiatives. First those idiots thought they were killing off the bugs! Turns out, they were making it worse! Jee-sus. And they pay these guys? My grandmother has more sense than half those losers!
Lest you think, not unfairly, that these are the words of another prickly doctor being prickly—let me finish.
The path of scientific inquiry is not straight and is not even a path really. It is all over the place, more George Costanza missteps than Albert Einstein eurekas for sure, but plenty of both. To grab little bits of evidence here and there as the story unfolds reduces the entire complex endeavor of the human pursuit of truth into a side show, a story of superbugs and superdolts. To make real progress requires sobriety, restraint, and sustained patience, conditions surely absent in today’s suped up, comic book version of infectious disease.