Saturday, February 28, 2009

Don’t Panic: Wash Your Hands

You have probably seen the headlines, or heard the scary stories, about MRSA: methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus. This is a “super bug” that we have created by taking penicillin and penicillin-based antibiotics.
You can’t blame anyone for this development, really. Penicillin was the miracle drug which was first used extensively on wounded soldiers during World War II. Why wouldn’t we use something that saved people from blood poisoning and sped healing? When I was a child in the 50s, I can’t remember how many times I was treated with a shot of penicillin. We all were. It was a miracle.
But staphylococci that survived a course of penicillin fell back and regrouped, developed resistance to penicillin, and produced new bacteria that would laugh at penicillin and all its derivative forms. So now we have MRSA. It is in hospitals, but it is also in the community. It is here on Vashon. Don’t doubt it.
MRSA and other bacteria and viruses are all opportunists. Like the boll weevil they are just lookin’ for a home. They have no morality that we know of; their single imperative is to live and reproduce. Hey, look, here’s a cut in the skin! Hey, blood! Wahoo! We’re in!
Neither do they consider the morality or worth of the host organism. They will infect the just and the unjust alike.
MRSA can – eventually – be cured, but it’s not a ride you want to take if you can help it. It is painful, and makes you sick, and in extreme cases can kill you, so don’t wait if you suspect you have it. Think you have a bad spider bite? Got an ugly boil or abscess? Get you to a doctor and ask to be tested for MRSA.
Prevention is the most important thing you can do. What is the best prevention?
Wash your hands. Wash your hands. Wash your hands. Concentrate especially on your nails, cuticles, and between your fingers.
When you’re done washing your hands, use a clean towel – and then put the towel into the laundry. In a public restroom, get a towel in your hand to turn off the water, assuming you’re in a public restroom that has towels and hand-turned faucets. This is where those electric eye faucets on the ferries come in handy. Oh, you’ll want a good lotion to put on your hands so all that washing doesn’t crack your skin – and let the MRSA in.
Never use anyone else’s towel or washrag.
If MRSA enters your home, launder clothing, sheets, and towels in hot water, preferably with a little bleach, and dry everything in a hot dryer. You will want to clean surfaces regularly with bleach water (1 teaspoon bleach to 1 quart of tepid water). Be careful with bleach – it is dangerous. No kidding. Read the directions.
Or spray everything with hydrogen peroxide: toilet seats and flush levers or buttons, faucet handles, sinks and counter tops. Clean and disinfect any surface where bacteria might lurk. Wash dishes either in the dishwasher or with anti-bacterial dish soap. There are disinfectant wipes you can get, if you prefer not mixing your own disinfectants.
Taking all these cleaning measures and a course or two of sulfa or some other non-penicillin drug may see you through the MRSA plague, but you won’t be able to go to work or school as long as you are a carrier. You have to have your nose swabbed and wait a couple of days for the culture results to get an “all clear.” Until then you won’t want to go out in public, and, trust me, the public will not want you out mingling with them. MRSA is rightfully seen as a plague.
Why am I writing this public health column? Guess. Right. MRSA has invaded my family. I was lucky – I did not get it, but two family members did, and there ensued a few weeks of cleaning, disinfecting, laundering, washing, and constant hand washing, plus spending most of the food money on co-pays and drugs.
Has anything good come of this experience? (1) I have discovered the beauty of splashless bleach. Man, what a great idea. (2) I have learned that being close to MRSA does not mean you will get it. (3) I have warned you that MRSA is here on the island, and it’s not somebody else’s problem.
Don’t panic; wash your hands!

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