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Saturday, Oct 26, 2002

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The anti-bacterial bubble goes bust

Pratap Ravindran

The heavy use of anti-bacterial soaps could actually contribute to a new breed of hard-to-kill superbugs.

PUNE, Oct. 25

SO, the soap industry was blowing bubbles all along when it talked about anti-bacterial products. And all those super-moms who watched television ads showing X or Y brand of soap efficiently eliminating squiggly little things (bacteria) and rushed out to buy the stuff by the tonne for the benefit of their grimy offspring are probably mightily ... bugged.

Researchers in the US, addressing a meeting of the Infectious Diseases Society of America on Thursday, dismissed soaps described as anti-bacterial and/or anti-microbial as "a complete waste of time" and wondered why they were called anti-bacterial in the first place as they were no different from plain soaps which, with water, do a pretty good job of doing away with bugs.

Even worse, the heavy use of anti-bacterial soaps could actually contribute to a whole new breed of hard-to-kill superbugs, the researchers warned the meeting.

Elaine Larson, Associate Dean for Research at the Columbia University School of Nursing in New York, noted that several studies suggest that alcohol-based gels are better to kill germs instead of washing them away and may be a good alternative for healthcare workers whose hands are damaged by repeated washings. "If you've got a newborn or a preschooler with a cold, you might consider using an alcohol-based waterless product for a little extra protection against germs," she said. "But for daily hygiene, hand-washing with regular soap is fine. Just be sure to wash all of the surfaces on your hands, the backs, between the fingers, and so on. It's not the amount of time that's important, but covering all the surfaces, as well as applying friction."

Actually, this is the second time around that the myth of anti-bacterial soaps is being debunked by the scientific community.

In June 2000, the American Medical Association had called on the US Government to carry out a review of anti-bacterial soaps. At a meeting in Chicago, its members had suggested that anti-bacterial soaps may not be anymore effective against germs than ordinary soap.

They had said they would monitor a review of such products by the US Food and Drug Administration very closely as doctors were particularly concerned that anti-bacterial soaps could be contributing to the growing problem of drug resistant bacteria... by killing the weakest bacteria and leaving the tougher, hard-to-kill strains dominant. In fact, according to Myron Genel, Chairman of the AMA's council on scientific affairs, there was reason to believe that they could contribute to a problem by helping create antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

However, the AMA had stopped short of recommending that consumers should avoid using antibacterial soaps and similar products such as mouthwashes and lotions. Trade groups in the US had, at that time, criticised the AMA's position as "unscientific".

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