book review: superbug

After having read Mira Grant’s fabulous work of zombie fiction, FEED, in which a terrible virus extracts an even more terrible toll on the world at large, I found myself on a virology kick and decided to read the new book, Superbug, by Maryn McKenna. The story of Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (known by its acronym, MRSA) might not, at first blush, seem that exciting when compared to Grant’s captivating horror fiction. Well, let me assure you that MRSA is far more terrifying than any zombie.

McKenna, a medical journalist, traces the evolution of the antibiotic resistant version of the very common bacteria, Staphylococcus aureus (one in three of us carries it around on a daily basis without ever developing symptoms), and its surprising jump from being an infection that only very sick people pick up in the hospital to a bug that destroys the lives of very healthy people who contract it from otherwise innocuous sources.

When I say destroy, I’m being kind. MRSA is a nasty bacteria that does horrible things to the human body. McKenna doesn’t shy away from descriptions of infection and the often Herculean surgical procedures needed to drain, clean, and otherwise remove said infection from the body. It’s not pretty, and might upset you if you’re squeamish or overly empathetic.

In medicine, there are lots of acronyms and long words that are often difficult to pronounce. McKenna manages to keep the jargon to a minimum and does an excellent job of explaining the rest. She deftly combines scientific explanations with the compelling and frightening stories of MRSA victims, never once leaving the reader adrift.

Superbug is one of those books that are impossible to put down. It is smart, tragic, frightening, and expertly written. It also happens to be of practical importance in our hyper medicalized world. MRSA kills more people every year than AIDS, but most people know next to nothing about it. Every parent, spouse, and child stands to benefit from learning about the role that this disease increasingly plays in all of our lives, and in learning to spot the warning signs early.

My only frustration with the book is that, practically speaking, it is a work in progress. It was written as a warning – to educate us that the threat is still present – and while McKenna follows the story of MRSA through most of 2009, the bacteria is still evolving at a rapid rate. For the reader, that means that we are left without a satisfactory conclusion. The fight against MRSA continues, so there is hope – but in the end, I’m left with a deep sense of foreboding and an even stronger desire to wash my hands.

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