FDA pops bubble on sanitizers

The products claim to help fight antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections.

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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has cleaned up some unproven claims being made by makers of hand sanitizers and antiseptic products.

The federal agency sent out warning letters to a number of manufacturers that have made statements their products can help prevent MRSA infections.

But hang on to common sense before washing everything down the drain, one germ guru advised today.

MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, is a bacterium that can cause severe -- even life-threatening -- infections that do not respond to treatment with the traditional antibiotics.

"Staphylococcus aureus itself is a very aggressive organism," explained Dr. Edward Cox, director of FDA's Office of Antimicrobial Products.

"It's often associated with patients in hospitals who have weakened immune systems, but the bacterium can also cause significant skin infections and abscesses in a normal, healthy person. And it can get into the bloodstream and, less frequently, may involve the heart valve, which is very difficult to treat."

The antibiotic-resistant strain is even more difficult to treat. "With MRSA, a number of the antibiotic drugs we typically used often don't work, so we lose treatment options we used to rely upon," he added.

It is against federal law to promote the hand hygiene products as preventing MRSA infections and other diseases without agency review and approval, the FDA said in a press release.

"Consumers are being misled if they think these products you can buy in a drug store or from other places will protect them from a potentially deadly infection," noted Deborah Autor, compliance director at FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research.

That said, the use of hand sanitizers has good science behind it, said Chuck Gerba, an environmental microbiologist at the University of Arizona and one of the nation's most oft-quoted germ experts.

"The (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommends the use of hand sanitizers. There is a lot of data that show hand sanitizers can reduce infection by about 30 percent," Gerba said.

The products can actually reduce the probability of catching MRSA, "but there are more routes than the hands for MRSA," he said.

The antibacterial foams and gels are most helpful in situations where people cannot wash their hands and are part of a toolkit for reducing overall bacteria-related illnesses, he said.

The FDA recommends people do not purchase over-the-counter hand sanitizers or other products that claim to prevent infection from MRSA, E. coli, salmonella, flu or other bacteria or viruses. "Ask your pharmacist or other health care professional for help in distinguishing between reliable and questionable information on product labels and company websites," the agency said.

Experts agree that nothing substitutes for washing hands often, especially before handling food, to help avoid getting sick, using warm water and soap for 20 seconds.

For children, this means the time it takes to sing the "Happy Birthday" song twice.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/fromthestorageroom.

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