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News

Dangers of new killer bug

University Of Chicago : 24 June, 2007  (Technical Article)
A 9-year-old boy from Chicago, Jewaun Smith, is lucky to be alive. A scrape on his left knee that he picked up riding his bike turned into a runaway infection that spread in a matter of days through the rest of his body, leaving his lungs riddled with holes. Jewaun managed to survive, but what worries doctors most about his near-death experience is that it's not an isolated case.
The bacteria that infected his knee has become resistant to the most common antibiotics and is on the march across the U.S. It has spread rapidly through parts of California, Texas, Illinois and Alaska and is beginning to show up in Pennsylvania and New York.

'This bug has gone from 0 to 60, not in five seconds but in about five years,' says Elizabeth Bancroft, a medical epidemiologist at the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services. 'It spreads by contact, so if it gets into any community that's fairly close-knit, that's all it needs to be passed.'

This is not bird flu or SARS or even the 'flesh-eating bacteria' of tabloid fame. But it is every bit as dangerous, even if it goes by an uncommonly ungainly name: community-acquired methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus.

Never heard of it? Neither have most doctors. But major new health threats don't usually announce themselves with press releases. A quarter of a century ago, the world learned about the AIDS epidemic because a health bureaucrat noticed an uptick in prescriptions for treatment of a rare pneumonia. In 1912, more than a half-century before the Surgeon General's report, a New York physician chronicled 'a decided increase' in lung cancer, which was considered rare at the time, and suggested that cigarettes might be the cause.

Which helps explain why infectious-disease specialists in the U.S. are so alarmed by the new killer bug. 'We're out here waving our arms, trying to get everyone's attention,' says Dr. Robert Daum, director of the University of Chicago's pediatric infectious-disease program, who was one of the first to call attention to the rapid spread of MRSA, back in 1998. 'People talk about bird flu, but this is here now.'

Hospital workers know all about drug-resistant bacteria. Several strains have been making the rounds of the biggest hospitals for the past 15 years or so, often posing a greater risk for patients than the condition they were admitted for. But until the late 1990s, epidemiologists assumed that the problem was restricted to large hospitals and nursing homes.

The MRSA strains turning up in the community at large are related to but different from the ones found in medical institutions. The hospital variety usually requires intervention with powerful intravenous antibiotics and is pretty hard to catch. By contrast, the new strains of MRSA respond to a broader range of antibiotics but spread much more easily among otherwise healthy folks. The bugs can be picked up on playgrounds, in gyms and in meeting rooms, carried on anything from a shared towel to a poorly laundered necktie.

One of the difficulties in tracking MRSA is that doctors rarely check for it. The standard test usually takes a couple of days, and hardly any doctors do it anymore because everyone assumes that most skin infections respond to the usual antibiotics. 'HMO's aren't going to be paying for you to do a culture on what they consider to be a [common] skin lesion,' Bancroft says.
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