Taking aim at "Superbugs"
19,000 die each year from this latest scourge
Americans’ embrace of antibiotics may finally be backfiring. A recent report documents the deadly powers of a new strain of staph bacterium that penicillin-type medicines cannot touch. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the germ known as methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA (Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus on right), kills more Americans each year than AIDS. In 2005, it caused 19,000 deaths and some 94,000 life-threatening infections. Because only the most serious infections were studied, researchers warned that the problem was even worse than it appeared.
When antibiotics are overused, bacteria can develop resistance. The resulting “superbugs” must be treated with something new. But public-health officials say too few new antibiotics are being developed, so doctors have limited ways to fight virulent new germ strains. An emerging example, apart from MRSA, is a bacterium strain that causes ear infections but resists all approved children’s antibiotics.
MRSA infections typically begin as a red spot on the skin. Especially if caught early, they can be stopped by a few of the newer antibiotics. The infections are still most commonly found in hospitals. But lately they have been turning up in prisons, schools and other communal settings. Spread by personal contact (e.g., the sharing of towels), MRSA can quickly wreak havoc if it touches a wound. Infections may move to the bloodstream or vital organs.
MRSA recently took the life of a Virginia high-school football player. Other student deaths have been reported in New Hampshire and Mississippi. In Massachusetts, infections have reportedly surfaced in a Wrentham elementary school and in Dighton-Rehoboth Regional High School. Rhode Island health officials say they are showing up in area emergency rooms.
The first line of defense is scrupulous hand-washing, particularly in hospitals. But more may be necessary. In Illinois, testing of new high-risk hospital patients for MRSA is now required. Those found carrying the germ must be isolated. The process appears to cut infection rates but increases costs. Hospitals eager to avoid such measures should redouble their efforts in the hygiene department. A requirement that they publicize staph-related illnesses and deaths could prove the best incentive.
Individuals, meanwhile, can protect themselves by washing their hands frequently. (Use soap and water, since antibacterial soaps may help to create more drug-resistant bacteria.) Individuals should also avoid sharing personal items and keep cuts and scrapes clean.
MRSA’s toll makes it clearer than ever that America needs a broad review of its antibiotic use, including among animals. Certainly, more research dollars should go to finding new antibiotics. But it would be far easier, and cheaper, to maintain the effectiveness of those we have through careful restrictions.