Saturday, November 17, 2007

Are Antimicrobial Soaps Breeding Tougher Bugs?

Some Experts Say Risks Outweigh Benefits

By Ranit Mishori ( family medicine resident at Georgetown University/Providence Hospital )
Special to The Washington Post November 2007
If cleanliness is next to godliness, modern America is the land of the faithful -- fighting the good fight against today's so-called superbugs with sparkling countertops and well-washed hands.
It may be a dangerous, germ-filled world out there, but with your little bottle of -- choose one: Dial, Safeguard, Palmolive -- you can stroll worry-free through it.

Or so you may think.

The problem about our obsession with killing germs, some scientists and public health advocates warn, is that it may ultimately do us more harm than good.

Stuart Levy of Tufts University School of Medicine, says, despite several "potential negative consequences" of these products, including weakening the immune system, which could lead to a greater chance of allergies in children, and their possible link to the emergence of antibiotic resistance -- the very problem that is making some diseases so difficult to treat.
What's more, many illnesses such as flu and the common cold, which prompt people to wipe down telephone handsets and doorknobs, are caused not by bacteria but by viruses -- and antibacterials can't slow a virus at all.

"For general use, antibacterial soaps are not superior to cleansing with regular soap and water," says Shmuel Shoham, an infectious disease specialist at Washington Hospital Center. His view is backed by the conclusions of an advisory panel to the Food and Drug Administration, which voted 11 to 1 in 2005 that, when it comes to keeping us healthy, antibacterial soaps and washes are no more effective.

While the arguments continue over whether antibacterial soap does any good, there's a second concern over whether it may actually do harm.
"Evidence is accumulating," Shoham says, "that chemicals used in antimicrobial soaps may be causing bacteria to become more resistant to commonly used antibiotics."
Beyond the drug-resistance worries, some scientists are concerned that antimicrobial soap is an indiscriminate killer.
Some bacteria are bad for us, but some are good. The antimicrobials kill both. And when the good bacteria are gone, there's more room for the bad bacteria to grow, raising our risk of becoming sick.

Besides, a germ-free environment may actually weaken our immune systems, some critics say. They are referring to the Hygiene Hypothesis -- the theory that children build their immune systems from infancy by putting in their mouths all those dirty objects they find lying around.
A number of studies have linked the development of allergies, asthma and skin problems in children to their having been raised in environments that are too sterile. "You need a little dirt," Levy says, "to train your immune system correctly."

The takeaway message: If you are worried about MRSA, E. coli, SARS, influenza or simply the common cold, you already know you should wash your hands.


Regular soap and water will do.

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