I recently read a really scary book.
It wasn’t written by Stephen King or James Patterson. It wasn’t even fiction. But the tales of necrotizing pneumonia and pus filled abscesses caused by a virulent strain of antibiotic resistant bacteria made my hair stand on end.
Maryn McKenna, an award-winning medical writer, created a terrifying and vivid portrayal of drug-resistant staph in Superbug: The Fatal Menace of MRSA. The book has the style of a crisply written detective novel from its first paragraph, comprised of one line:
“Tony Love’s knee ached.”
This ordinary knee ache resulted from a collision on the volleyball court where he scraped his elbow. From this ordinary childhood injury, came a knee so swollen that this healthy teenager could not put weight on it. The first ER visit resulted in a prescription for Motrin and hot towels. A few days later, the teen was in so much pain that he could not walk or even eat. Within minutes of the family’s arrival at the ER, Tony crashed into septic shock. His body was wracked with infection – a voracious antibiotic resistant staph known as MRS (methicillan-resistant Staphyloccus areus). Tony ultimately recovered, but the story of how a little bit of bacteria felled an otherwise healthy kid is only the beginning of McKenna’s nightmarish portrayal of the infection that could hit any one of us at any time.
The antibiotic era began during World War II, when penicillin was released to the public in 1944. While it was heralded as a wonder drug, even its creator, Sir Alexander Fleming, was beginning to fear the ability of the bacteria to circumvent the drug’s protection.
Given the wont of Americans to overdo, this fear was justified. Penicillin was added to face soaps and body creams and was prescribed to excess. The nimble bug it was supposed to cure evolved, getting stronger. Appearing first mainly in hospitals where the patient’s resistance is weak, the bacteria then developed a community strain, infecting individuals with no connection to hospitals, either patients or workers, killing, in some instances, healthy children within hours.
The current problem
The real story, however, is not the spread of this Superbug, but the system that we constructed to give it life. The over prescribing of antibiotics by busy doctors, overcrowded prisons, and poor hygiene are part of this perfect storm that we’ve created. While these are large contributors, we must not forget the livestock industry. Between 70 and 80 percent of the antibiotics used in this country are given to animals raised for food. The lion’s share of this percentage is provided either preventatively (i.e. so that otherwise healthy animals will not get ill under the wretched confinement system that they are forced into) or as sub-therapeutic doses to help the animals gain weight so that they can reach slaughter sooner. Despite connections made between the antibiotics used in livestock production and resistant bacteria that infects individuals working with these animals, the livestock industry has claimed that this relationship is not proven with absolute certainty. Their case is growing weaker by the day.
Why this matters for families
Before reading Superbug, the question of confinement raised animals was an ethical one for me – whether the misery inflicted upon animals and, for that matter, the humans working in those facilities by the putrid conditions outweighed the need to eat cheap meat. Even the environmental degradation resulting from the inevitable careless management of CAFOs seemed a distant and intangible casualty. For me, Superbughas changed the argument from one of ethics to a moral imperative. In every hamburger of unknown origin, I see Tony Love’s face–or even worse, that of Carlos Don IV.
Carlos was another healthy kid who left on a school trip and returned with a 104°F fever. The first doctor diagnosed Carlos with walking pneumonia so his mother kept him home bundled and hydrated until she realized that he was beginning to hallucinate. She rushed Carlos to the hospital and the doctor’s ultimately diagnosed his condition as MRSA. A long slow death march ensued during which Carlos’s lungs dissolved and clotting choked off the blood to his lower intestines, legs and arms. In two weeks, he was dead.
After reading Carlos’s story late in the evening, I woke my son from a dead sleep to scrub his hands clean. I hugged him as tightly as I could.
What we can do
Since the government has been slow to respond to this growing menace, we moms need to take action. Pew Charitable Trust is launching a Mom’s Campaign to Save Antibiotics. If we don’t, we may soon reach the end of antibiotics and the 20th century wonder drug will be powerless to protect us and our children.
—Guest blogger Melissa Graham is the founder of Purple Asparagus.