Superbugs and Antibacterial Wipes

Glenn Reynolds assumes he emphasises the obvious when he quotes the NYT: “Regular wiping of student desks and use of hand sanitizers during the school day can significantly reduce student illness and absenteeism, a new study shows.”

Unfortunately, life is not so simple.

Disinfectant wipes routinely used in hospitals may actually spread drug-resistant bacteria rather than kill the dangerous infections, British researchers said on Tuesday.

While the wipes killed some bacteria, a study of two hospitals showed they did not get them all and could transfer the so-called superbugs to other surfaces, Gareth Williams, a microbiologist at Cardiff University, said.

Those wipes that are becoming ubiquitous in office buildings, college campuses and cafeterias nationwide may have a very undesirable side effect. Two, actually.

First, they may wipe out less noxious germs effectively, leaving the more serious pathogens unchallenged in their niche, free to grow and spread more rapidly than they otherwise would. This seems to be happening in hospitals now.

MRSA infections can range from boils to more severe infections of the bloodstream, lungs and surgical sites. Most cases are associated with hospitals, nursing homes or other health care facilities.

Second, if the wipes are truly effective, then our own immune systems seldom have to fight off even minor infections. When we are exposed, which is inevitable in the long run, then we are unable to mount the body’s own defences.

Are we better off without them? Not yet. But if the use of antibacterial wipes (and agents off all sorts) is indiscriminate, the bacteria will win this particular war. It is not healthy to even try to live for very long in an antiseptic atmosphere.

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