The company I work for, ABC Fine Wine and Spirits, takes employee health seriously. We also take personal liberties very seriously and have never required employees to get flu shots. I was asked to review the pros and cons of flu shots and present this information to the ABC Family.
The Era of the Super Immune System
A few years back, Luke was working on the house when, after putting on a pair of heavy duty gloves, he detected what seemed to be a small burr in one of the fingers. When he shook his glove, a brown spider dropped to the ground and ran off.
The next day, the top of his right hand was red, hot and swollen, suggesting a potential bacterial infection at the site of a spider bite. A few hours after that, the redness had already crept up his wrist, so I put Luke on a course of Augmentin. When the infection failed to respond, I suspected MRSA (methcillin resistant Staph aureus) and added Bactrim.
I’ll spare you the gory details of the healing wound. The point is, what might have been a disfiguring infection was soon stopped in its tracks: the drugs worked.
But what if they didn’t?
According to a recent article in Bloomberg Markets Magazine, instances of drug resistance are increasingly common around the globe, particularly in places like India where overcrowding, sewage and sanitation problems and unregulated access to low-cost generic antibiotics provide a perfect breeding ground for common bacteria to evolve into superbugs.
Germs have been strategizing against the effects of antimicrobial agents from a variety of sources (including other microbes) for billions of years. So as far as bacteria are concerned, manmade antibiotics represent just another challenge, the most recent of a long series of biological puzzles to solve. Superbugs like MRSA (Methcillin Resistant Staphyloccocus Aureus) demonstrate just how nimble germs can be, circumnavigating whatever chemical barriers we throw in their path.
With the advent of penicillin came hope that we might someday wipe out bacterial illness. That hubris was soon replaced with the hope that we might at least keep one step ahead of bacteria, developing new antibiotics faster than germs could adapt. Now, we’re doing all we can to avoid entering what the World Health Organization calls the “post-antibacterial era.”
Recently, researchers discovered a new breed of superbugs armed with a special gene called NDM-1 (New Delhi metallo-beta-lactimase-1) that can be easily transferred across many different types of bacteria, including the very common intestine-dwelling E-Coli.
Think of NDM-1 as a list of strategies for overcoming any antibiotic a germ might encounter, a kind of “Defeating Antibiotics for Dummies” distributed (not in book form, but on loops of DNA called plasmids) to germ populations all around the globe. And since, according to University of Indiana microbiologist Karen Bush, the giant pharmaceutical companies now pursue highly profitable hypertension and high-cholesterol drugs (which patients take for many years) rather than new antibiotics (which patients take for days or weeks), the publishers of the “For Dummies” book won’t need to bother coming out with updated editions for some time.
You might be thinking, Right, another story about the latest superbug, or bird or swine flu, or flesh-eating bacteria, or whatever else we’re supposed to be terrified of this news cycle. What can I do about it?
Well, I’ll tell you a few simple things you can do.
First, understand that although some 20% of antibiotics prescribed for adults in the US are for sinus infections, study after study has shown that antibiotics are no more effective than placebo for the treatment of these infections. The next time you have a sinus problem, listen to your doctor’s advice about what prescription, if any, might actually help.
Second, supercharge your immune system by eating probiotic foods and cutting sugar. The gut, if you’ll pardon the phrase, is the heart of the immune system, and probiotics balance the gut flora that help prevent bacteria from getting out of control. A high-sugar diet, on the other hand, stacks the cards against you as it creates a latticework of cross-links within the interstices between cells. These can create physical barriers that snag white blood cells as they chase down bacterial bad guys.
Finally, stop using antibacterial gels. Instead, wash your hands with regular, non-antibacterial soap and water. In Hawaii, I saw numerous patients with recurrent MRSA infections, and every one of them used antibacterial lotion regularly. These hand lotions don’t discriminate: they kill good, protective bacteria along with the bad. And since no lotion wipes out 100% of bacteria, some will survive to communicate their adaptation strategies to other bacteria, strategies that will find their way into the next edition of “Defeating Antibiotics for Dummies.”
And that’s not very super, now is it?