Facing the Coming Plague

By Skurkovich, Simon | The World and I, June 1998 | Go to article overview

Facing the Coming Plague


Skurkovich, Simon, The World and I


A Russian doctor who defeated a raging epidemic of deadly staph infection offers an alternative to antibiotics, a preparation that uses naturally produced antibodies as a treatment effective against many types of harmful bacteria.

A chill went down the spine of many public health officials and physicians last August, when they learned that a strain a staphylococcus bacteria nearly impervious to the antibiotic of last resort, vancomycin, had been found in a hospital patient in Michigan. It was the second such case, the first having been reported in May from a hospital in Japan. As it turned out, the Michigan bacteria was still one step away from total resistance to the drug, and the patient was eventually treated successfully with other antibiotics. Nevertheless, the grave implications of the report were not lost on the medical community and many in the public. The drumbeat of an approaching threat had been clearly heard.

Then in February 1998, the prestigious medical journal JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) published another disturbing report. It had been thought that drug-resistant bacteria were picked up or developed mostly in hospitals, where repeated or prolonged use of antibiotics is common. The February 25 issue reported that among children who have none of the exposures of long-term hospitalized patients, the prevalence of staphylococcus resistant to the drug methicillin is dramatically increasing--from 10 per 100,000 admissions in 1988-90 to 259 per 100,000 admissions in 1993-95. Methicillin is the antistaph drug of choice and is one step away from the more powerful vancomycin.

Antibiotic resistance has become a global problem. It is emerging as a result of genetic mutations, which may spread from bacteria to bacteria. Evolutionary selection of resistant strains occurs as drug-susceptible bacteria are killed off and strains resistant to one or more drugs are freer to spread their genes. The increased use and misuse of antibiotics are leading to greater selective pressure toward drug resistance.

At the same time, the development of new antibiotics active against these potentially lethal germs has dramatically decreased. No new class of antibiotics has reached the market for decades.

But what if there were a way to produce an inexpensive preparation to fight these bacteria, one against which bacteria cannot become resistant even as the preparation targets specific bacteria and is unaffected by whatever defenses the bacteria put up against modern-day antibiotics? Nearly 30 years ago, in Russia, I produced such a preparation using traditional methods and the body's own defenses.

Russia's staphylococcal plague

In 1967, deaths from infections caused by staphylococcus bacteria had reached epidemic proportions in the Soviet Union. As in the United States today, staph was responsible for the most serious hospital infections. We were already at the stage now feared approaching in the United States: Strains of bacteria, particularly Staphylococcus aureus, had become resistant to all available antibiotics.

The epidemic did not sweep in and recede, like a sudden wave, but gradually inundated hospitals and gathered strength. This was probably due mostly to the poor sanitary conditions resulting from the lack of proper sterilization equipment and disposables taken for granted today in the West. Mortality was so high that we had begun to refer to the epidemic as the staphylococcal plague.

It made its mark first in maternity wards, with new mothers contracting mastitis (inflammation of the breast). Then it began taking its toll on postoperative patients, especially those who had undergone heart surgery. Surgical wounds became infected, and, with no effective antibiotic, patients developed sepsis (blood poisoning) and died within a week or so, no matter how successful the operation itself may have been. Children were also dying from pneumonia, meningitis, and peritonitis caused by the deadly staph. …

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