This Papercut Could Be Deadly
Bethany Burke was scrambling to pack for a family vacation when she glanced in the mirror and froze. An ugly red pimple had sprouted smack in the middle of her forehead. “That’s the worst,” she remembers thinking.
She had no idea, however, how much worse it would get.
Bethany, then a 15-year-old high school sophomore, tried to forget about the zit as she boarded a flight from her hometown of Austin, Texas, to Portland, Oregon. But during the flight, the bump grew. And grew. And grew. “It was inflamed, angry and red—and it kept gaining ground,” Bethany says.
After the plane landed, more bumps emerged, including one close to her eye. Her parents took one look and headed for the nearest emergency room. “Suddenly, these things were taking over my face,” says Bethany, now 19. “It was scary, because we had no idea what was going on.”
As it turns out, Bethany wasn’t suffering from a case of acne. She had been attacked by a “superbug.”
Superbugs are a type of bacteria that can fight off the powerful antibiotics that are supposed to destroy them, and they infect more than 2 million Americans each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 23,000 victims don’t survive.
These resistant bacteria were once a problem only in hospitals and nursing homes, preying on the sick and elderly because of their weak immune systems. In the past decade, though, the germs have been affecting healthy children and adults as well. In a few hours, they can cause life-threatening infections.
Teens, especially student athletes, are vulnerable because the bugs lurk in warm, damp places where people come in close contact with each other, such as school locker rooms and gyms, says Dr. Aaron Glatt, an infectious disease specialist. “If you get cut or scraped playing sports, and you come into contact with bacteria on a mat, you give it a way to get in,” he explains.
Many different types of superbugs exist, and each causes its own horrific symptoms: urinary-tract infections that won’t clear up, life-threatening blood infections, or the worst diarrhea of your life. In rare cases, one of the resistant organisms, called MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), can turn into a flesh-eating killer.
As for Bethany, she says the doctor didn’t seem too concerned. “He just handed me this pill, an antibiotic,” Bethany says. “He gave us the impression that it was going to clear up very fast.”
Boy, was he wrong.
A Miracle Cure
The story of superbugs starts with a medical breakthrough that was actually an accident.
In 1928, bacteriologist Alexander Fleming was running experiments when he left for vacation, neglecting to clean several bacteria-filled petri dishes he had left by a window. When he returned, he noticed that mold growing in one of the dishes seemed to have destroyed the bacteria around it. That led to the creation of the first antibiotic, penicillin.
Fleming’s discovery changed medicine forever. Suddenly, doctors could cure deadly diseases like tuberculosis, pneumonia, and meningitis. Surgeons could operate without fear of patients picking up killer infections. People no longer died from simple wounds and cuts that got infected. Millions of lives were saved. Antibiotics were called “the wonder drug.”
There was just one problem: Bacteria are resilient. Almost immediately, they began finding ways to morph and mutate to outwit these new medicines. And they spread their resistance by swapping bits of DNA with each other.
Even Fleming knew resistance was a risk. When he accepted the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1945, he explained that some of the microbes in his lab were already resistant to penicillin. Use antibiotics cautiously, he warned. But we did exactly the opposite.
Doctors started handing out antibiotics for every complaint, even though the drugs aren’t effective against the viruses that cause colds, flu, and coughs. In fact, half of all antibiotics go to people who don’t need them.
Superbugs in Your Food?
Making matters worse, industrial farmers routinely give low doses of antibiotics to cows, chickens, and pigs to help them gain weight and to keep them from getting sick. A whopping 80 percent of antibiotics in the U.S. go to farm animals, not people.
Why should we care? Because experts say exposing bacteria to low doses of antibiotics—not enough to kill them—actually makes them stronger. It gives them time to adapt and build up resistance. “When you’re teaching [someone] how to box, if you don’t knock him out, he will become a stronger, smarter boxer,” says Ellen Silbergeld, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “The same thing happens with bacteria.”
As a result, superbugs have been showing up in our food at an alarming rate. Last year, the magazine Consumer Reports found antibiotic-resistant bacteria on half of the raw chicken breasts it sampled. Those germs may end up in your kitchen, where they can make you sick if your food isn’t handled or cooked properly.
And it’s not just meat that’s a concern. Big piles of animal feces, held in cesspools, allow those same superbugs to get into groundwater. If the manure is used as a fertilizer for crops—a common practice—fruits and vegetables can be contaminated.
The germs can even travel through the air. For one study, Silbergeld and her colleagues drove behind trucks carrying chickens on their way to the slaughterhouse. Afterward, they found increased levels of resistant bacteria inside their cars!
A Scene Out of a Scary Movie
Back in Oregon, it didn’t take long for Bethany to realize the antibiotics the doctor had given her weren’t working. One of the bumps grew so large that she could no longer open her eye, and her pain increased. “There was this burning sensation, like being bitten by fire ants.” Her parents rushed her to another hospital. As Bethany faded in and out of consciousness, they pumped the strongest antibiotics available into her veins. They also decided to lance, or open up, the bumps on her face. “It was like a scene out of a horror movie,” Bethany recalls. “I was in this white room and someone was coming at my face with a giant needle.”
When they popped the boil on her forehead, Bethany says, it spewed green and yellow pus. Eventually, however, the new medicines seemed to start working. Her fever dropped, and the bumps stopped growing.
Luckily for Bethany, there were still three powerful antibiotics that together were able to subdue her infection, which turned out to be MRSA. But what happens when killer germs become resistant even to those drugs? For doctors, that’s the biggest worry.
“In the past, there was always a new antibiotic that came along to bail us out and treat these infections,” says Dr. Arjun Srinivasan, a medical epidemiologist. “But the development of new antibiotics has slowed to a trickle, and for some infections, there is no antibiotic on the horizon to treat them.” That’s why it’s so important for Americans to work together to prevent infection and use antibiotics wisely, Srinivasan says.
Bethany, meanwhile, returned to Austin once she felt better, but her health problems continued for another two years. She had stomach problems, weird rashes, recurrent sinus infections, joint pain and swelling, and unexplained fatigue. She missed so much school that she had to repeat her junior year. “Studying for the SAT was not even on our radar,” says her mom, Melissa Burke. “We were busy keeping her alive.”
Today, Bethany is a freshman at Southwestern University in Texas. Because she’ll carry MRSA for life, she still has to shower with a special soap and scrutinize even the smallest scratches for signs of infection.
“I’d heard about MRSA before, but I never knew there was anything out there like this,” says Bethany, who’s now a spokeswoman for the MRSA Survivors Network. “Teenagers need to know that it can happen to anyone. I feel lucky to be alive.”