Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Antibiotic Resistant Infections

Boy! What having spent a month in a hospital ICU unit does for one's perspective on medicine! First Living Wills, now I want to talk a bit about antibiotic resistant infections.

First, I do not want to generate germophobia or an obsession with bacteria. There are two facts to keep foremost in one's mind as you read the rest of this blog entry: 1) Antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria are still pretty rare in the normal environment -- our bodies/homes/workplaces/churches; and 2) There are GOOD bacteria which do daily battle with the bad ones, so don't lump them all together.

So, with that fact in front, what is an antibiotic resistant bacteria? It is a specially mutated bacterial species that has evolved, which is resistant or impervious to certain antibiotics that have commonly been used to kill them. The most widely heard about is MRSA - methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus. This is a Staph infection caused by a particular staph bacteria that cannot be effectively treated using the antibiotic methicillin, other penicillins, and even a few other forms of antibiotics. This makes it much harder to treat, as the numbers of antibiotics that will work are limited (and growing smaller over time.) MRSA is not the only bacterial strain that has antibiotic resistance. Other resistant strains have appeared in the strep family, the tuberculosis family, and the enterococcus family.

For the most part, the people getting infected include those in hospitals, nursing homes, group quarters, and those who are immune compromised. You get immune compromised from certain illnesses (like HIV), or from some drug regimens (like used to prevent organ rejection, or chemotherapy), or from severe physical and emotional stress (like from a major surgery.) In the world of microbiology, there are always exceptions; one of the growing exceptions is that while this list accounted for 100% of the "super bug infections" once upon a time -- there are growing signs that these bacteria have escaped and are showing up more in the general population as well.

This escape is a scary prospect to everyone. What IF most or all bacteria develop resistance to all our antibiotics? We are then suddenly plunged back into the pre-20th century years where the effective treatments of infections were not as simple as we have lived with over the last eighty years (Penicillin was discovered in 1928). I am, however, not as worried or scared as a lot of doctors/health professionals seem to be, and here is why.

Speaking ONLY of the general, healthy population -- even in the era before antibiotics, more people lived than died. Before antibiotics there were still treatments for infection. Naturopathic medicine still uses many of these treatments, and have added some others as well. There are any number of herbal substances that have infection-fighting powers. Herbs fight infections on two fronts. Some can stimulate immune system function. Echinacea, for instance, increases the CD4 Killer Cells in the white blood cells to seek out and destroy foreign attackers -- both bacterial and viral. The second front herbs work on is as direct killers of microbes. Garlic, is an excellent example of a plant medicine that kills bacteria on contact. Garlic extracts are being used against MRSA very effectively! Vinegar and hydrogen peroxide kill bacteria directly. The best news of all is that these natural substances have been around for, all practical purposes to our discussion, as long as bacteria have been in existence; and the bacteria have not developed resistance to any of them. Why this is, nobody knows. But, this means that natural medicines still work, even against MRSA and the others! Do they work as quickly? Do they work as effectively? Truthfully, probably not -- but they are an essential presence to be getting used in ANY infection - whether it is being treated with antibiotics or not.

Finally, I want to throw in a word about using probiotics for strengthening immunity. Probiotics are the "good" bacteria (e.g. lactobacillus and acidophilus to name a couple of hundreds of kinds.) We all have them residing within us and on our skin surfaces. These good strains of bacteria set up a microbiological environment where pathological bacteria have to fight and compete to gain a foothold. Good strains of bacteria do "friendly" training simulations for the immune system to keep it tuned and vigilant. Fermented foods (e.g. yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchee) and probiotic supplements are excellent sources of probiotics that will aid in keeping your immune system resistant to antibiotic resistant, as well as other nasty kinds of infections.

Stay Healthy!!

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