New Bug Hits the Public, But Antibiotics Should Help

MRSA, a bacterium that causes skin infections, boils and absesses, is hitting the general public. The bug was previously confined to hospitals and nursing homes, then had spread to prisons, sports teams and other germy environments. The new "community form" of MRSA, while often resistant to the latest antibiotics, is typically susceptible to old-fashioned antibiotics.

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Doctors say there's a new bug making the rounds, a bacterium that causes skin infections, boils and abscesses. As NPR's Joanne Silberner reports, experts say it's something to be aware of but isn't too much of a worry. In most cases, treatment is simple.

JOANNE SILBERNER reporting:

For decades, a bacterium called MRSA has been a threat to people in healthcare facilities such as hospitals and nursing homes. It can cause serious problems such as pneumonia and is resistant to many common antibiotics. In the last five years, some MRSA bacteria mysteriously changed. They broke out of the hospital and started infecting other groups - prisoners, IV drug users, professional sports teams.

Now the bacterium has passed a tipping point. It's gone beyond people in especially germy environments and hit the general population. David Talon is an infectious disease expert at the University of California at Los Angeles. He's also the senior author of an MRSA study in this week's New England Journal of Medicine.

Mr. DAVID TALON (University of California Los Angeles): We now realize that this was an evolving type of problem and now it has become such a frequented problem doctors need to consider this infection and change their approach to antibiotic therapy.

SILBERNER: Talon and other researchers collected data on skin and soft tissue infections from eleven emergency departments around the country. They found that the new form of MRSA, called the community form, was responsible for nearly 60 percent of those infections. The finding doesn't surprise Tammy Mustrum(ph) a spokesperson for the Association of Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology.

Ms. TAMMY MUSTRUM (Association of Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology): It confirms what many people suspected in that community-acquired MRSA infections are very widespread throughout the country.

SILBERNER: Now UCLA's Talon says everyone is vulnerable.

Mr. TALON: The risk now is being human and having skin.

SILBERNER: The good news is unlike the hospital-acquired form of MRSA, the community form is susceptible to more antibiotics says Lindsay Grayson. He's an infectious disease specialist in Australia where the bug showed up early on and inexplicably in aboriginal populations. He says many infections will clear up on their own or can be successfully drained. And if antibiotics are needed, they can be found.

Mr. LINDSAY GRAYSON (Infectious Disease Specialist): These bugs are actually in many cases susceptible to old-fashioned antibiotics. Antibiotics that have been around 40 years. So it's sort of an irony in a way that they've become resistant to the fancy and new antibiotics and in the meantime are not resistant, are still susceptible, to some of the older agents.

SILBERNER: UCLA's Talon says the problem is doctors often reach for antibiotics that don't affect the new bug. The choice can be complicated. There are new antibiotics that in fact work and some old ones that don't. So far, serious problems from community-acquired MRSA are rare. But Talon says the bacterium still needs to be watched.

Mr. TALON: There certainly is a concern that this strain more easily causes infections and that the infections it causes can be more severe than have been seen in the past. That's something we definitely should study more.

SILBERNER: In the meantime, he says, if infection suddenly develops in your skin or soft tissue that in the course of a day or two gets redder, hotter, more swollen or fills with pus, a doctor can take care of it by draining the wound and if the infection looks especially serious, choosing the right antibiotic.

Joanne Silberner, NPR News.

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