The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Eight things you can do today to help stop the spread of killer ‘superbugs’

Listeria bacteria is extracted for genome sequencing at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.  (AP/David Goldman)

The World Health Organization warned April 30 that the planet may be headed toward a “post-antibiotic era” when common treatments no longer work and routine infections become lethal. Already, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said, antibiotic resistant organisms kill 23,000 people in the United States each year.

Here are some things you can start doing now to help stop the spread of "superbugs":

• Ask your health caregivers whether they have washed their hands. Though it can be awkward and intimidating, do it anyway. Especially in the hospital, where one in 25 patients acquires an infection. If you're reluctant to question, say, the surgeon who just saved your life, ask a family member or friend to do it. Some hospital personnel wear buttons that invite patients to "ask me if I've washed my hands."

• Stop hassling your doctor for antibiotics when he or she says you don't need them. The vast majority of colds and other upper respiratory infections are caused by viruses. Antibiotics don't work on viruses. They kill bacteria.

• When you are prescribed antibiotics, take the entire course, even when you start feeling better. Don't hoard them. Don't save some for next time. Don't share them. All of those help strengthen bacteria's resistance to medications.

• Wash your hands. A lot. Thoroughly. Don't stop until you've finished one full rendition of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" (not out loud, that's just weird). Make sure there is soap in the bathrooms at your child's school, your office, at the day-care center. Make sure it gets used.

• Ditch the antibacterial soaps. They don't work any better than regular soaps, according to the Food and Drug Administration, which studied the issue for 40 years. Antibacterial soaps are generally more expensive than regular soap, anyway. Hand sanitizers, which are alcohol-based, are fine to use when soap and water aren't available.

• Get yourself and your children vaccinated.

• Seek out meat, dairy, eggs and fish that are free of antibiotics. As much as 80 percent of the antibiotics used in this country are given to livestock, contributing to bacterial resistance. Changing consumer demand is one way to curb the practice.

• Cover your darn mouth and nose -- completely -- when you cough or sneeze. Keep surfaces clean. Scour anything that has come in contact with raw or undercooked meat, fish, shellfish or eggs. Keep up your own resistance by exercising, eating well and getting enough rest.