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Superbugs, Treatment and Antibiotic Resistance

The Holmes Show last night carried a report that antibiotic resistant "superbugs" reported in three different hospitals were nothing new and follow a 10-year international trend. But how did society fight germs before antibiotics, like penicillin, were discovered. John Howard reports.

No one who has seen the decline in pneumonia and a thousand other infectious diseases, or has seen the eyes of a dying patient who's just been given another decade by a new heart valve, will deny the benefits of technology.

But, today, we find ourselves in a real technological fix. The early promise to humanity was for a future of golden health and extended life which has mostly turned out to be true.

However, degenerative diseases - heart attacks, stroke, cancer, arthritis, ulcers, and all the rest - have, for the most part, replaced infectious diseases as the major enemies of life and destroyers of its quality. That is, until this rise in resistant superbugs.

Too often, our cures are turning out to be double-edged swords, later producing a secondary disease or an antibiotic resistant strain; then we reach desparately for another cure.

Writing in 1913 the eminent surgeon, William Stewart Halsted, referred to the centuries-old practice of putting silver wire in wounds, then said; " I know of nothing which could quite take its place, nor have I known any one to abandon it who had thouroughly familiarised themselves with the technique of its use."

With the advent of better infetion-fighting drugs, silver fell out of favour, because its ions bind to proteins and don't penetrate tissue beyond the surface. A few silver compounds, however, still have specialised uses to sertilise water aboard space stations.

As recently as 1973, research doctors at the VA hospital in Syracuse New York, again discovered the benefits of silver in fighting infections. They trialled silver electrodes electrified with minute currents at the positive pole on staphylococcus aureus, one of the commonest and most troublesome kinds of infection.

Electrified silver, they found, offered several advantages over previous forms. There were no other ions besides silver to burden the tissue. The minute currents drove the silver ions further than simple diffusion and, importantly, it was well suited for use against several types of bacteria simultaneously. The doctors also reported that it killed even antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria and fungus infections.

For treating wounds, however, silver's use was still too local extending just a few millimetres from the electrode. NASA, around that time, needed an electrically conductive fabric and a small company produced nylon parachute cloth coated with silver which was used by the doctor's to cover a large wound over wide area.

The doctor's reported success and with no side-effects. What happened to the research and why it is still not being used is unknown. Expensive antibiotics remain the preferred treatment. With the antibiotic resistant "superbug" phenomenon, perhaps it is time to blow the dust from this1973 research.


ends

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