Staph Killing More Americans Than AIDS New data indicate that a drug-resistant staph infection, Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), is killing nearly 19,000 Americans every year — more than the nation's annual number of AIDS deaths. Why is staph so hard to treat, who is at risk, and what can be done to avoid infection?
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Staph Killing More Americans Than AIDS

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Staph Killing More Americans Than AIDS

Staph Killing More Americans Than AIDS

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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And we're going to hook in this edition of THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT with a little follow-up on our Big Story today, the new data on just how many people could be getting sick and dying from MS - MRSA. Let me try this one more time, Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus.

BURBANK: Staphylococcus.

STEWART: I was so close.

BURBANK: You were. You were very close. We got a doctor here who can probably pronounce it, too.

STEWART: Yeah. This new CDC report estimates as many as 19,000 Americans may have died in 2005 due to MRSA infections. That's a lot easier to say. That's more people than died of AIDS or homicides that year. Most of it seems to have happened in hospitals and nursing homes - due to what, you might be asking. One case - employees not washing their hands thoroughly enough, really. So what is MRSA, exactly? Who's at risk? What does it mean? And when those articles say it's a flesh-eating disease, what does that mean, exactly?

BURBANK: Vance Fowler is an associate professor of Infectious Diseases at Duke Medical Center. He joins us now.

Hi, Vance.

Dr. VANCE FOWLER (Associate Professor of Infection Diseases, Duke Medical Center): Hi, good morning.

BURBANK: Let's just kind of start out right at the beginning. What is a Staph infection, exactly?

Dr. FOWLER: Sure. Well, it can - you know, Staph infection can - is sort of like describing, you know, communism, you know, in that - you have a general idea of what it is, but there's a whole range of specifics within that definition. And so a Staph infection can range anything from just a self-limited boil - you know, a little pimple on your skin - to infections of a really life-threatening significance, like infections of heart valves, infections of joints and spines, terrible infections that can cause enormous problems. So it - there's a real range and a real spectrum of…

BURBANK: Well, so then what makes MRSA different from the garden variety-Staph infection?

Dr. FOWLER: That's a great question.

BURBANK: Thanks.

Dr. FOWLER: And the short answer is probably just the fact that it's resistant to more antibiotics, and that's why people are concerned about it. That's why, you know, you were kind enough to have me on the - your show this morning. That's the issue, is that it's resistant to many of the antibiotics, the sort of go-to antibiotics that we use to treat these infections. So that's the big answer - in a word, resistance.

BURBANK: Well, there's this CDC report that has been getting a lot of attention the last couple of days, where they actually went out and tried to sort of find out how many people are possibly dying from MRSA. And one doctor that - her reaction I read in the New York Times, she called the findings astounding. That something like 19,000 people could have died in 2005 from it. Many, many more could've been sickened by it. Would you agree that it's an astounding report?

Dr. FOWLER: I think it's important for a variety of reasons. There are at least three reasons - three important messages that that excellent paper brought home. First, it brought - for the first time, with a great deal of precision, it really made the message that MRSA is common. So they - and they quoted very high rates of infection that they were able to demonstrate. So point one, MRSA is common.

Point two, MRSA is serious. So 75 percent of the infections that they described in their study were bloodstream infections, and this is one of the most difficult to treat and feared forms of these MRSA infections.

STEWART: Let's talk about prevention a little bit.

Dr. FOWLER: Okay.

STEWART: I was listening to some radio last night, and this woman was really freaked out about - she doesn't want to take her kid to the doctor because people don't wash their hands enough, and that's how it's spreading. Is it that simple, that it's just about people not being hygienic enough?

Dr. FOWLER: No. Nothing is as simple as a single answer. Does hand washing play a central role in preventing the transmission of MRSA? The answer is yes, absolutely. And are people, in general, and health care workers, in particular, less compulsive or less effective about hand washing as they should be? The answer, again, is yes.

But there's a lot more to it than just hand washing. It's, I think, as far as the single greatest step we can use to help prevent these infections, really careful attention to hand hygiene is critically important in the health care setting. And - but, there's a lot more to it.

BURBANK: One report I read found that a hospital that tried to really identify MRSA right up front with people actually managed to reduce the infection rate by like 60 percent or something. So there's a lot of things can be done. Maybe, all of this, you know, talk about it will shed light some on it.

Dr. Vance Fowler, an associate professor of Infectious Diseases at Duke Medical Center.

Thank you very much.

Dr. FOWLER: Yeah, thanks a lot for your time.

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