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Monday, 7 January 2008


Perhaps I've just had too good a Christmas, and my normal bad temper is on rebound, or perhaps some things are just remarkably annoying. I usually make a point of not watching programmes like "The Wright Stuff" on UK Channel 5, but my other half is off work with the 'flu today, and put it on.

As the programme went to an advertisement break, the teaser question we were left with was:

In what year was MRSA first discovered?
a) 1880
b) 1950
c) 1980

It's often possible to answer these questions on a psychological basis rather than actual knowledge; they are almost always designed to surprise. Now, I don't mind the intellectual superiority that people intend to show by asking these kinds of questions, as long as the answer is actually correct, and illuminates the subject in some way. However, it was all too easy to predict that the given answer would be - and indeed was - 1880.

Since MRSA is methycillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus, it doesn't take a genius to suppose that MRSA cannot have been discovered until after methycillin was developed. This was by Beecham, in 1959. It was first reported in the UK in 1961 that certain Staphylococcus Aureus had been found to be resistant to methycillin.

The bacterium itself was discovered in 1880. It resides perfectly normally on human skin, nose, throat and the colon, and doesn't necessarily indicate the presence of infection. It usually responds to methycillin, among other antibiotics.

Why does this wind me up so much? Because what it does to the watching population is give the impression that MRSA has been around for over 100 years, and has not been a problem until now. I think the average viewer may conclude that all the recent concern is merely scaremongering, and will also find the conflict with what they thought previously will add to a sense that science is not to be trusted, and that scientists change their advice according to political expediency.

Staphylococcus Aureus in itself is not a worry. MRSA is a big concern. It may well have been caused to thrive today by continued overuse of antibiotics. It is very hard to see how we can get back from this position, but disinformation is unlikely to help.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You may have been able to guess when the bacterium as discovered - good for you - but why would everyone else have been able to? Not everyone is a brilliant scientist, after all. There was a full explanation or back ref detailing it's full history but I didn't have time to read it. Apologies.

May I ask you a question: why the snobbish attitude to day time TV? I'm proud of my show -very proud indeed. We take complicated issues and examine them in a much more thoughtful way than many newspapers and other tv shows do. Open you mind, scientist!
Matthew Wright