Drug-Resistant Bug Becoming More Common

Additionally, factors such as the type of hospital or the population of the surrounding area were not taken into account, and no steps were taken to confirm that the responses on the surveys were factually accurate.

"They set out to try to get a sense of the burden of the disease, and that is important, but I think we've ended up with data that is difficult to interpret," said Dr. Trish Perl, senior hospital epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, of the more recent survey. "We don't really know how generalizable it is."

Unlike the CDC study, the new research aimed to get a "snapshot" of the disease in action. To do this, the survey asked APIC-affiliated health care workers to count the number of people with MRSA who were at their hospital on a single day of their choosing, between Oct. 1 and Nov. 10, 2006.

"We felt like that would be much more comprehensive, accurate and practical than asking to get info for the past two years," Jarvis said.

In their survey, conducted at 1,237 U.S. hospitals, they looked at how many patients were infected and what medicines they were resistant to, among other factors.

But it is also notable that the report and the CDC study measured slightly different outcomes -- meaning that comparing the two could be a bit like comparing apples to oranges.

Stemming the Spread

Even though the precise rate of infection remains somewhat of a mystery, MRSA is known to be prevalent throughout hospitals in the United States and cases like Sampson's are not unheard of.

"In some settings we've seen some really dramatic infections -- like, almost your heart would stop, very dramatic sort of pictures," said Perl.

"It's really a big problem. We need to put some serious resources not only into studying the magnitude of the problem, but -- what we can do about it?"

In its report, APIC makes some suggestions for how hospitals can follow up.

It advises hospitals to find high-risk areas for MRSA, such as operating rooms, and test them often for MRSA. Additionally, simple measures such as thoroughly cleaning beds, using gloves and gowns when working with patients who have MRSA, and washing hands or rubbing them with alcohol solution to kill germs can also curb infection rates.

Bartlett, for one, has already seen how these safety measures can be effective.

"Hand hygiene with the alcohol that's at the bedside has become a remarkably efficient way to get rid of all germs," he said. "That has been a huge step forward, especially for this organism."

But Sampson said she believes that more should also be done to warn patients.

"I think the hospital should have to report their cases of MRSA; I don't think restaurants should have report cards when hospitals don't," she said.

"I think when you go in you should have an idea of how many MRSA cases this hospital has had. I think you should at least be able to make an informed decision. I had no idea when I went in for an ankle replacement that this was going to happen."

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