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Stop Trying Too Hard To Kill Bacteria, Expert Says
WASHINGTON, June 1 (Reuters) - Americans have to lose their illogical fear of bacteria and stop trying to kill them all if the problem of drug-resistant "superbugs" is to be licked, an expert said on Thursday.

Not only will people have to stop over-using antibiotics, but they should stop buying anti-bacterial soaps and detergents because they are a waste of time, Dr. Stuart Levy of Tufts University in Boston said.

"People have to understand that bacteria are necessary and we are not going to sterilize our homes," Levy told a briefing sponsored by the American Medical Association.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are becoming a bigger and bigger problem. They range from penicillin-resistant gonorrhea to super-strains of staphylococcus that cannot be killed by vancomycin, the strongest antibiotic available.

"We have patients dying of infectious diseases because some of the hundreds of antibiotics we have are not working," Levy said.

Doctors are now being warned to cut back on frequent prescriptions of antibiotics except for people who really need them, and patients are being reminded to take their full course of drugs to make sure no resistant bacteria survive to breed more resistant bacteria.

"The problem with an antibiotic is it is not really the miracle we would like it to be," Levy said. The best way to deal with the problem, he added, is to let more bacteria live.

"Let the susceptible strains come back," he said.

The battle against bacteria, the oldest forms of life on Earth, is sure to be a losing one anyway, Levy said.

"They have seen lots of things come and go. Think of the dinosaurs," he said. "Let's make peace. We should say 'be kind to bacteria. They are our friends'."

For instance, people cannot digest food without the several pounds (kilos) of bacteria that live in the gut.

The overuse of antibiotics is one problem. But Levy said there was another threat -- the hugely popular antibacterial products.

"We are getting our antibiotic soap, our detergent, or pajamas," Levy said. "It is a rage."

"In a home, the average washing time is five seconds," Levy said. But operating room staff scrub for 10 minutes in a hospital.

The danger is more than simply a false sense of security. Two years ago Levy's lab at Tufts found that E. coli bacteria can develop resistance to triclosan, one of the common antibacterial ingredients in store-bought soaps.

Triclosan acts on a single gene in the bacteria to kill it, they found. They also found that tuberculosis has a similar gene -- and it is the same gene that one tuberculosis drug targets.

It is possible, Levy's group says, that overuse of triclosan could lead to the rise of a new drug-resistant form of tuberculosis.

Levy said antibacterial soaps work well in hospitals, when they are used under controlled conditions and for a good reason. Any antibacterial agent, even bleach, takes time to kill bacteria.

But a quick swipe of a kitchen counter or a hasty rinse under the sink will not kill bacteria. The whole point of washing hands, Levy said, is to wash the bacteria away. Adding a bug-killing agent will not accelerate the process.

"The public think 'I just sterilized my home'," Levy said. "The antibacterial is not going to do a thing. It needs time."

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