Superbug: The Fatal Menace of MRSA
Superbug: The Fatal Menace of MRSA
Maryn McKenna
Free Press, 2010
288 pp., $26.00

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James Marroquin


The growing threat of antibiotic-resistant staph infections.

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As the MRSA problem worsens (by 2005 causing more annual deaths than AIDS), researchers have identified potential factors contributing to its growth. Superbug shows how some of the sources of the MRSA surge flow from cultural, political, and economic forces. Physicians' injudicious prescription of antibiotics for viral infections is driven by the demand for an instant germ-killing cure, when all that is really possible and necessary is some rest and cough medicine. As more Americans enter prison or jail, the overcrowding, suboptimal health care, and poor sanitation often present in these institutions have made them perfect MRSA incubators. Indeed, epidemiologists have calculated that correctional facilities are more potent than hospitals at disseminating the infection into the surrounding community. Finally, there is the effect of industrial livestock production. In the 1950s, cows, chickens, and hogs crowded into feedlots and barns began to routinely be fed small doses of antibiotics as research showed this caused them to grow faster. This liberal use of antibiotics propagates drug-resistant bacteria that the closely confined animals pass to and fro in much the same way that inhabitants of prisons and hospitals do. New strains of MRSA and other antibiotic-resistant pathogens are thus created and spread into the human population by means such as flies, wind, and people.

While effectively addressing the issues fueling MRSA's rise will be difficult, having antibiotics available to treat the infection could pose just as a great of a challenge. Superbug reports that MRSA may be developing resistance against the few antibiotics still able to kill it and pharmaceutical companies are not in a rush to generate new ones. This is because antibiotics are only used for days to weeks, making them less revenue-generating than medicines that treat chronic conditions such as diabetes or hypertension. Moreover, after spending hundreds of millions of dollars developing an antibiotic that works against MRSA, pharmaceutical companies face the very real prospect that an unpredictable mutation will render the new antibiotic ineffective after only a few years.

While the fearful future that Superbug presents is not cause for fleeing to the nearest sterile bubble, the suffering and expense that MRSA causes are real and deserve a wise, robust response. At the same time, despite the triumphal predictions of some futurists, human mastery of nature will never be complete. So even if we are clever and lucky enough to find a silver bullet for MRSA, it will not be long before another superbug emerges in its place, putting human ingenuity and resourcefulness again to the test.

James Marroquin is a physician in Austin, Texas.

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