Dangerous Germ Becoming More Common

By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 7, 2005; Page A11

In the first systematic attempt to assess how common the infections have become,
researchers did a comprehensive analysis of these methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus
aureus (MRSA) infections in Baltimore, Atlanta and Minnesota in 2001 and 2002. They
found 2,107 cases in people who had no contact with hospitals, the primary locales where
such infections turned up in the past. The non-hospital cases accounted for 8 percent to
20 percent of all such infections identified in the study. Children ages 2 and younger
appeared to be especially vulnerable.

"A decade ago, it would have been zero percent," Fridkin said. "We wanted to see if this
had become commonplace in the community. The answer is a resounding 'yes.' It's clearly
no longer limited to the hospital."

The microbe is a strain of the ubiquitous bacterium Staphylococcus aureus, which usually
causes well-known "staph" infections that are easily treated with common antibiotics in the
penicillin family, such as methicillin and amoxicillin.

In recent years, small outbreaks of infections with a strain that is impervious to those
antibiotics have been reported among athletes, inmates, children and other groups, but
otherwise resistant staph strains had been almost exclusively limited to hospitals.

"We're used to resistant staph in the hospital as a problem among patients with heart
failure, liver failure, cancer or other health problems," said David N. Gilbert of the Oregon
Health & Science University. "It's started attacking normal healthy people, causing serious,
often fatal illness."

The germ, which is spread by casual contact, produces potent toxins that kill
disease-fighting white blood cells. That rapidly turns minor rug burns, cuts and other skin
infections into serious health problems, apparently including "necrotizing" abscesses that
eat away tissue. Previously, such cases were thought to be caused only by strep bacteria.

In other cases, the microbe gets into the lungs, causing unusually serious cases of
pneumonia, often on the heels of the flu, or spreads into the bloodstream, triggering
life-threatening complications.