Health

Saturday 20 September 2014

Biologist: we must learn more if we're to fight superbugs

Dr Fidelma Fitzpatrick, microbiologist. Picture: Ronan Lang
Dr Fidelma Fitzpatrick, microbiologist. Picture: Ronan Lang
h1n1 virus
h1n1 virus

It's THE post-Christmas bug that has GP surgeries throughout the country thronged with under-the-weather patients who just can't shake off that persistent chesty cough.

Bug season 2014 is here and, according to microbiologist Dr Fidelma Fitzpatrick, it's time we all learned more about good bugs, bad bugs and superbugs.

With strong anecdotal evidence of increased absenteeism in the workplace post-Christmas, the clinical lead in Health Related Associated Infection and Antiomircrobial Resistance is heading an information campaign to reveal all things 'bug' at a major public meeting this week. So what exactly is causing the illness which has laid low so many?

"I think it's mainly viral infections which are affecting us this winter," Dr Fitzpatrick explained to the Sunday Independent. "The viruses at the moment are the common cold and flu.

"Those are really what is common now and what is making so many people sick."

The tendency to get sick around Christmas time is more than a coincidence, according to the Beaumont Hospital clinician, who says some common cold viruses are cold-adapted, which means they do better in lower temperatures.

One argument is that because we are all indoors sharing the environment, bugs can spread quicker.

"We're coughing, we're spluttering, we're sharing our bugs with one another. On top of that, the environment is dry because we have the heating on which is drying out our mucosa in our throat, which means bugs can invade.

"In summer time, we've got the open air or we leave our windows open and let fresh air in. But in winter we stay indoors, which is part of the problem and why we pick up bugs," she said.

The issue of bugs is an area of healthcare in which Irish people do not have a great understanding. This is something that has been highlighted by the campaign, she says.

"We found discrepancies like the fact that two-thirds of people knew there were health risks with antibiotics, which told us people were aware of the potential side-effects. And yet one-in-three people still felt that an antibiotic would help cure a cold or flu.

"More than one-third expected an antibiotic by the time they got to their doctor and I think people were equating an antibiotic prescription with value for money."

This is something the campaign aims to change.

Good bugs turning bad may sound like something from a horror movie, but it's also the reason we are getting colds, in addition to the fact that no new antibiotics have been produced since 2000.

Even more frightening is the fact that these bugs are "born survivors", according to the microbiologist, which has led to some bugs, like MRSA, to develop resistance to antibiotics.

In Britain, the chief medical officer, Sally Davies, has said the global threat posed by superbugs is comparable to that of terrorism, while the consensus is that an over-reliance on prescriptions has allowed bugs to develop in this way.

Dr Fitzpatrick says that like in all areas of healthcare, there is a shared responsibility between patient and doctor to ensure superbugs don't become a super problem.

"There's good scientific evidence that tells you if you have to take it two times a day or three times a day, and it varies from antibiotic to antibiotic because they zap the bacteria in different ways. If you don't complete the course because you're feeling better, about 90-95 per cent of the bacteria are gone, but you've five per cent left and now they've seen the antibiotic and they're going to develop ways around it."

Watching TV on the couch, snuggled up under the duvet, can spread bugs

Dr Fidelma Fitzpatrick says some bugs are cold-adapted which means they are strongest at this time of year. However, the fact that we tend to stay indoors in winter means we're in closer contact with one another and we're therefore more likely to share our bugs (like the flu virus, pictured right). With the central heating on, the air atmosphere becomes drier and the mucosa, the saliva in our throat, dries too, allowing foreign bugs to invade.

What's got us all under the weather at the moment?

With our hospitals straining under 'trolley pile-ups' and queues for GPs surgeries stretching out the door, it seems Ireland is gripped by ill-health. Dr Fitzpatrick believes it's mostly viral infections affecting us this winter. In adults, this is the common cold or the flu. Among children, the most common bug going around is RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), which can show up as a cough or a high temperature.

What to do if you're feeling poorly?

The three tips for a speedy recovery are rest, fluids and eating well. There are lots of over-the-counter remedies for things like muscle aches or the shivers. But Dr Fitzpatrick says the best source of advice is either your GP or your pharmacist. If you're not sure, get help because it could be something more serious. The HSE website also has useful information like how long a particular ailment should have you down and when you should start to feel better.

Irish Independent

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