Opinion

''The Spread of Superbugs''

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"Until three months ago, Thomas M. Dukes was a vigorous, healthy executive at a California plastics company. Then, over the course of a few days in December as he was planning his Christmas shopping, E. coli bacteria ravaged his body and tore his life apart.

Mr. Dukes is a reminder that as long as we're examining our health care system, we need to scrutinize more than insurance companies. We also need to curb the way modern agribusiness madly overuses antibiotics, leaving them ineffective for sick humans.

Antibacterial drugs were revolutionary when they were introduced in the United States in 1936, virtually eliminating diseases like tuberculosis here and making surgery and childbirth far safer. But now we're seeing increasing numbers of superbugs that survive antibiotics. One of the best-known — MRSA, a kind of staph infection — kills about 18,000 Americans annually. That's more than die of AIDS.

Mr. Dukes, 52, picked up a kind of bacteria called ESBL-producing E. coli. While it's conceivable that he touched a contaminated surface, a likely scenario is that he ate tainted meat, said Dr. Brad Spellberg, an infectious-diseases specialist and the author of "Rising Plague," a book about antibiotic resistance."

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