January 2009 Archives

The Infectious Disease Society of America is trying to discourage a problematic advertising gimmick on the part of several U.S. pharmacies this winter. The drug stores are offering free antibiotics (with a doctor's prescription). 

For decades, doctors have claimed that they know they shouldn't prescribe antibiotics for viral infections such as colds and the flu, but that it's easier to satisfy a demanding patient than explain that antibiotics work against bacteria, not viruses. The new freebie offers are likely to make the patient pressure worse, the IDSA concludes. That's bad news because the more we use antibiotics, the more we speed the growth of multi-drug resistance in the bacteria that pervade our bodies and our environment.

The better solution: Free flu shots.

Serial Killers Now Online

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missing poster.JPGLeading forensic scientists have dramatically upped their estimate of the number of serial killers currently operating across the nation. They base their new estimate on the nation's scary number of active missing person cases (100,000 in any year) combined with its gruesome backlog of unidentified human remains (about 40,000)--the latter piling up in medical examiner's offices and police evidence warehouses across the country.

Last spring, Popular Science allowed me to delve into the subject with an in-depth look at some promising, high-tech solutions. It's in the January 2009 issue, now online. 


You may have seen or heard the recent headlines, along the lines of "Women's Hands 'Germier' than Men's." The report behind the rather misleading news flash is more interesting.

University of Colorado professor Noah Fierer studies the ecology of bacteria, fungi, and related microbes in natural systems such as soil, water, and the atmosphere. Turning his survey techniques to the human body, he looked at the diversity of bacteria on the hands of 51 students--all healthy except for the interesting twist that they'd all just finished their final exams. (Sweatier palms than usual, perhaps?)

Fierer and his colleagues used a gene-sequencing technique to count the number of different types of bacteria on each subject's hands. They tallied an impressive 4,742 types.

The quirky news headlines jumped out of the unexpected finding that the hands of female students harbored a greater diversity (but not necessarily more germs, per se) than did the guys'. 

Just as interesting, perhaps, was the finding that while everyone seemed to share a core group of common skin bacteria, these common species made up just 13 percent of the total diversity. In fact, over 80 percent of the microbial species found on a person's left hand were different from those found on the right.

All this seems to suggest that most of the bacteria on our hands are fleeting transients. We pick them up as we touch objects, surfaces, and other body parts.

That said, the researchers found that hand washing--while a good idea when you're around others who might be ill--did little to change the diversity of the a palm's rainforest-rich ecosystem.

Hre's the study, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, with more interesting stuff at Fierer's website at the University of Colorado.