Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Book Review: Superbug: The Fatal Menace of MRSA


The value of hand-washing was my main takeaway from Maryn McKenna's Superbug: The Fatal Menace of MRSA. Well, that and a sense of creeping paranoia the bursts into full bloom when things like my grandmother being hospitalized with pneumonia (no worries, she's fine now) or my cat getting a dime-sized, infected abscess from a bite he sustained at the hands, er, mouth of one of the neighbor's cats (he's fine, too, but what is with these accident-prone cats?) happen. The downside of reading lots and lots of books about diseases: you become a very well-educated hypochondriac.

At least I'm washing my hands more. It can't hurt, right?

I found Superbug both engaging and informative. McKenna, a medical/scientific journalist, is highly effective at communicating the vagaries of the medical system and epidemiological practices in layman's terms. I appreciated the way in which she highlighted inefficiencies in reporting within the epidemiological community, and was shocked at the extent to which denial and intentionally obtuse behavior on the parts of individual doctors and hospital administrators has fed the spread of MRSA. Once again, everyone: wash your freaking hands. I found it so appalling that these infections continue to spread (and acquire additional drug resistance as they do so) because hospital personnel are unwilling to acknowledge their role in the spread of staph infections and behave accordingly. I find myself in complete agreement with McKenna's ultimate solution: given staph bacteria's ability to rapidly evolve antibiotic resistance and the medical establishment's inability to nip spread in the bud, the only way to corral it effectively is to develop a vaccine. There are already vaccinations that protect against bacterial diseases, so there's no reason why one couldn't be developed for this one with enough research.

My only quibbles with Superbug are its tone, which often becomes sensationalist, and McKenna's unfortunate choice to compare MRSA outbreaks to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. I tend to be on Team Sontag where this sort of thing is concerned, and consider using the spectre of HIV/AIDS scaremongering at best, downright insensitive at worst. HIV/AIDS has killed millions of people, infected millions more, and is the leading cause of death in a number of communities around the globe. Worse, its primary victims are socially marginalized by any combination of race, poverty, sexual orientation, occupation, addiction status, and religion, among many, many others. The behavior of the American government under Reagan (which did next to nothing until heterosexual people started getting sick because they believed that AIDS was a plague sent by god to punish people they deemed immoral) was particularly deplorable. The spread of HIV had led to more human rights abuses than I can count or name on the parts of both individuals and their governments, so I have a really hard time swallowing antibiotic-resistant superbugs as something creating a comparable situation. Sure, we're all really scared, but I seriously doubt the toll that MRSA can take on humanity will ever approach what HIV/AIDS already has.

Nevertheless, Superbug is definitely worth reading. 4 out of 5 stars.

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