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MRSA Hospitalizations Surge, as Drug Resistant “Superbug” Moves Outside Hospital Settings

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MRSA hospitalizations have doubled since 1999, a new study says, another indication that the drug-resistant “superbug” is becoming an urgent public health issue.  The study, which appears in the December issue of the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, is the first to examine the recent magnitude and trends related to methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, infections.

MRSA is a bacterium that causes staph infections on various parts of the body. Most often, it causes mild infections on the skin, causing pimples or boils. But it can also lead to more serious skin infections or infect surgical wounds, the bloodstream, the lungs, or the urinary tract. Depending on where the MRSA infection occurs, it can be life threatening. MRSA is difficult to treat, because it is resistant to many common antibiotics. The Centers for Disease Control  says MRSA infections kill about 250 people each day. About 90,000 Americans come down with drug resistant MRSA every year, and of that about 19,000 die from the infection.

According to this latest MRSA study, hospitalizations caused by MRSA more than doubled between 1999 and 2005, soaring from 127,000 to nearly 280,000.  The study concluded that MRSA and staph infections are now “endemic, and in some cases epidemic” in many U.S. hospitals, long-term care facilities and communities.

The researchers who conducted the MRSA study also found that patterns of infection have changed as well.  Traditionally, MRSA infections were problems in hospital and other patient settings.  However, in the past several years, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of MRSA infections acquired outside of hospital settings. At the same time, there was no change, up or down, in the number of deaths from hospital-associated staph or MRSA infections.   The study’s authors say this means that antibiotic-resistant infections are spreading more rapidly in the community while the epidemic of drug-resistant infections in hospitals continues unabated.  The end result of this, the study authors wrote, is an increase in patient suffering and the length of time patients spend in the hospital – in addition to direct health care costs, estimated to be more than $6 billion annually.

And as MRSA infections become more frequent, the bacteria’s ability to resist antibiotics becomes stronger.  The upsurge in MRSA has increased demand for vancomycin, a powerful antibiotic often used when other antibiotics fail.  However, as the use of this drug has increased, public health officials have begun getting more frequent reports of vancomycin-resistant MRSA, a development that will only serve to make the epidemic of drug resistant staph even worse.

The researchers offer several suggestions to address the spread of MRSA infections. These include national surveillance or reporting requirements for these infections, more research to explore the interaction between community-and hospital-associated infection, stepped-up efforts to control hospital infection and increased investment in the development of a staph vaccine.

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