When it comes to MRSA, some perspective is in order

Life is full of risk — some large, some small, some imaginary. Often the scariest risks are the smallest, and the largest risks go ignored.

Shark attack heads the list of what people most fear will hurt them. However, a person has one chance in 11.5 million of being attacked by a shark, according to the International Shark Attack File. In 2000, just 79 shark attacks occurred and only 10 of those were fatal. In the same year, falling coconuts killed 150 people. How many people fear coconuts?

What about the risks posed by bacteria and viruses?

All right, you say. Bacteria and viruses are not the same as sharks and coconuts. I agree. These microbes are everywhere. Our bodies confront them every day. Mostly, our bodies win, and we never even know that we have been exposed. Sometimes, the microbes win, and we need medical help to avoid serious illness. However, the risk of serious illness or death due to infection is often much less than we perceive. We cannot ignore the potential harm that infections can cause, but we must be circumspect about that harm.

Given the recent anxiety about methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, I think it is wise to review the top health risks in our country. The Journal of the American Medical Association in 2000 reported the leading causes of human deaths are:

— Tobacco (435,000 deaths, 18.1 percent of total U.S. deaths)

— Poor diet and physical inactivity (400,000 deaths, 16.6 percent)

— Alcohol consumption (85,000 deaths, 3.5 percent)

— Microbial agents — bacteria, viruses, etc. (75,000)

— Toxic agents (55,000)

— Motor vehicle crashes (43,000)

— Incidents involving firearms (29,000)

— Sexual behaviors (20,000)

— Illicit use of drugs (17,000)

Plainly speaking, the public health network needs to address a great many causes of death, including microbial agents. However, public health does not have enough money or staff on board to do all the work that needs doing. Consequently, public health puts its too-few dollars and its maximum energy into interventions that do the most good for entire populations:

— Immunizations

— Safe water, safe food

— Community wellness and fitness

— Emergency preparedness

— Communicable disease investigation

Yes, there is MRSA in Snohomish County. Is it preventable? Yes. Keep clean with lots of soap and water, do not share personal items like towels, cover wounds, and disinfect surfaces that touch skin, such as gym equipment. Is it treatable? Yes. Your doctor can do a test to find the right antibiotic to knock it out.

Perspective: Do we have polio in Snohomish County? Not anymore! It once was high on the list of diseases that killed children — but immunizations have just about wiped it out in North America. Keep your shots current, including getting a flu shot every year.

Perspective: Do people in our county die from tobacco-related and obesity-related illnesses? Yes! I beg you to stop smoking, start moving, and to eat nutritious foods.

Please be vigilant and proactive about your health and the health of our community — and when it comes to risks, keep a healthy perspective.

Dr. Gary Goldbaum is health officer for the Snohomish Health District.

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