Superbug spreading

New strains of the life-threatening infection MRSA are spreading, creating a health crisis that did not exist several years ago, according to the op-ed “Backing away from the MRSA crisis” published in the LA Times. Johns Hopkins Hospital reported that 61 percent of the patients in the pediatric intensive care unit were carrying unusual strains of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA. These children are carrying strains that are more infectious and more difficult to detect, leading to serious bloodstream infections that never would have occurred several years ago.

Maryn McKenna, author of the op-ed, writes that the new strains of MRSA have been spreading the past few years throughout livestock and farm workers in Europe and North America. So when it was reported that six Canadians were infected with these particular strains of MRSA, it was curious that none of them had been in contact with livestock or farming.

What exactly is going on with this deadly infection? McKenna, also author of the book “Superbug: The Fatal Menace of MRSA” explains:

MRSA managed its advance in part because we were not paying attention, and in part because a bacterium that produces a new generation every 20 minutes will always outpace pharmaceutical companies that take a decade, on average, to bring a new drug to market.

But it also escaped our control because we created the conditions that allowed it to. Patients expect prescriptions when they’re ill, and doctors have been too quick to prescribe antibiotics even when they might not be necessary. We’ve crammed prisons beyond their capacities without taking into account that bugs bred in a prison will walk out with inmates when they are released and with correctional officers at the end of every day.

More than anything, the crisis was bred of our craving for cheap protein, which led to industrial-scale farms that consume 70% of the antibiotics used in the U.S. each year. We failed to realize in time that antibiotic-resistant bacteria would leave those farms not only in the animals that received the drugs, but in their manure, in groundwater and in dust on the wind.

According to McKenna, MRSA is the most important healthcare-associated infection. It causes 19,000 deaths a year in the U.S. alone, 370,000 hospitalizations, millions of hospital and doctors’ office visits, and an estimated $8 billion healthcare bill (one projection estimated the healthcare costs to be a staggering $38 billion). There is much more to her interesting analysis of this epidemic. You can read the full op-ed here.

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