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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

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And I'm Melissa Block.

There's good news for a change about a bad bug called MRSA. MRSA, it stands for Methicillin-Resistant´┐ŻStaph Aureus. Experts say more than 90,000 Americans come down each year with these drug-resistant staph infections, and about 19,000 die. It's been a big problem for hospitals and other health care settings where these infections can get around fast. But now, federal officials say MRSA infections are on the decline.

NPR's Richard Knox has the story.

RICHARD KNOX: Dr. Sharon Wright is setting a good example. Wright is de-germing her hands with an alcohol gel from one of those dispensers you see everywhere in hospitals these days.

Dr. SHARON WRIGHT (Chief Infection Control Officer, Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital): That sign says, push to protect. It's an extra sign that we put up in the last year. They're colorful, have that imprint of a hand. They fit nicely over the dispenser and they draw people's attention to them.

KNOX: Sharon Wright is the chief infection control officer at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Boston. Not so long ago, less than three years, records show that staffers at this Harvard teaching hospital didn't wash their hands more than about half the time, despite cajoling. But Wright says things have changed.

Dr. WRIGHT: Last spring, for the first time, we hit 90 percent average in the ICUs and on the floors. We raised the bar up to 90 percent.

KNOX: That's one big reason why MRSA infections have come down recently at this hospital and apparently most others around the country. Rates have declined a whopping 28 percent among hospitals in nine U.S. cities. These numbers are from a study out today by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dr. WRIGHT: I think that we have changed the culture. Can we do more? Yes. But I think that people are more aware now. It's more of an - oops, I forgot that -instead of no realization that they should have cleaned their hands to begin with.

Dr. ALEXANDER KALLEN (Centers for Disease Control): We are very encouraged and pleased and excited to see that things are improving.

KNOX: That's Dr. Alexander Kallen of the CDC and author of the study. It's in the journal of the American Medical Association. Infections also went down significantly among people in the community who got sick after they had some contact with a health care facility.

Dr. KALLEN: In recent times there's been a lot of effort and attention paid to preventing hospital-associated infections like preventing infections after surgery or presenting infections with catheters, et cetera. And hopefully these results suggest that some of those efforts are paying off.

KNOX: This isn't the only evidence. An unpublished study shows MRSA infections have plummeted in all Veterans Affairs hospitals. All incoming VA patients get tested to see if they're carrying the germ. If they have it, they're isolated and treated with antibiotics.

Dr. Daniel Diekema of the University of Iowa was pleasantly surprised by the new numbers. But he says it doesn't mean mission accomplished.

Dr. DANIEL DIEKEMA (University of Iowa): Even a 28 percent reduction in hospital-onset MRSA means we have a long way to go.

KNOX: Diekema worries that people might relax the constant vigilance needed to push dangerous staph infections down more.

Dr. DIEKEMA: Staph aureus, not just MRSA, but all the other types of staph, including resistant staph of different types, is not going away. This is a bug that lives in our noses. We're not ever going to sever that relationship between staph aureus in human beings, which means we're going to be seeing staph infections as long as we're around.

KNOX: And then staph is far from the only dangerous drug resistant germ that gets passed around at health care facilities and the wider community. In fact, Diekema says 90 percent of hospital infections are caused by other bacteria with names like C-difficile, acinetobacter and pseudomonas.

Dr. DIEKEMA: MRSA is not the only bad bug out there. It's just the most famous.

KNOX: But fortunately, persistent hand washing and other infection control measures can vanquish these other pests, too.

Richard Knox, NPR News, Boston.

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