In recent weeks, drug-resistant staph infections have been making the headlines. Top US doctors are now calling staphylococcus aureus bacteria as “the cockroach of bacteria” due to its ability to lurk in various places and spread easily clinging on unwashed hands.
The culprit is MRSA, or methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, which is a form of the most common staph family of germs. Statistics reveal that about one in every three people carries staph aureus bacteria in their noses, and about one million people carry the MRSA type.
Over time, germs evolve to withstand treatment. Most staph is no longer treatable by the granddaddy of antibiotics, penicillin. By the 1960s, staph also began developing resistance to a narrow-spectrum antibiotic, methicillin.
While MRSA is not a new problem, public anxiety about bacterial infection is. But the recent turn of events should not trigger any panic as “this isn’t something just floating around in the air,” said Dr. Julie Gerberding, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Staph infections occur only during close contact like sharing towels and razors, or rolling on the wrestling mat or football field with open wounds that are not protected with bandages. And according to Gerberding, MRSA is preventable largely by common-sense hygiene.
“Soap and water is the cheapest intervention we have, and it’s one of the most effective,” Gerberding told a hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
Diseases caused by MRSA are mostly skin infections, such as boils and abscesses. But it can sometimes spread to cause life-threatening blood infections. Last October, it’s been reported that the first national estimate of serious MRSA infections reached 94,000 a year. It’s not clear how many people die, but one estimate put the MRSA death toll at more than 18,000, slightly higher than U.S. deaths from AIDS.
MRSA have two distinct strains: a type spread in hospitals and other health facilities, and a genetically different type spread in communities. Most MRSA victims are hospital patients; only 14 percent of serious MRSA infections are the kind spread in the community.
But the death of a 17-year-old Virginia high school student triggered a wave of reports of MRSA infections in different schools which prompted lawmakers to pepper Gerberding with the following questions: