New Bacteria Threaten Public Health

Like many young athletes, 12-year-old Nicholas Johnson spent last autumn playing football with his local team, the Stafford Spartans from Stafford, Texas. A minor shoulder injury sent him to the doctor.

Five weeks later, Nicholas left the hospital, lucky to be alive.

"He was like a stroke victim when he came out of the hospital," said Nicholas' mother, Janet. "He was on a ventilator for 12 days. It was the scariest thing I ever went through."

Nicholas was felled by a deadly new bacterium named MRSA that is sweeping the United States and Europe.

And medical experts are alarmed that MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, is just one of several deadly new strains of bacteria that are becoming resistant to modern antibiotics.

"The development of the MRSA problem is an example of what we're going to be facing on a regular basis," said Dr. John E. Edwards, professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and chief of infectious diseases at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles.

Staph Report

One day after seeing a doctor for his shoulder sprain, Nicholas was rushed to Texas Children's Hospital in Houston with a fever of 104.6. Three days later he was in respiratory failure with swollen elbows and knees. "The MRSA had spread to his bones, his lungs and his blood," his mother said.

Though Nicholas is back playing sports again, he is still on antibiotics one year after his hospitalization. He has also lost all hearing in his left ear and has several scars from three operations to drain fluids from his joints.

Staph is a common bacterium, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 25 percent to 30 percent of the population are carrying staph bacteria in their nose at any given time. Left untreated, staph can cause skin and bone infections, pneumonia, bloodstream infections and other illnesses.

Since the 1940s, staph infections have been successfully treated with antibiotics similar to penicillin. But MRSA is a tough new strain of staph against which most of the antibiotics in our medical arsenal are useless.

Besides almost killing Nicholas, MRSA infections are causing illness and death among high school and college athletes, school children, prison inmates, military personnel, and hospital residents and employees -- all groups who live in close quarters and are more likely to spread infections through physical contact or the sharing of towels, clothing, sports equipment, toys and other items.

The CDC does not have data on the spread of MRSA, though some officials estimate there are about 100,000 MRSA-related hospitalizations each year in the United States. The CDC is working with health departments nationwide to improve reporting for MRSA infections and deaths.

"We do have an epidemic in this country," said Dr. Joseph F. John, an infectious disease specialist, of the spread of MRSA.

"But we do have some good news," added John, chief of medical services at the Ralph H. Jones VA Medical Center in Charleston, S.C. He notes that two relatively new antimicrobials developed by Pfizer and Cubist Pharmaceuticals have been shown to be effective against some cases of MRSA.

Of Bugs and Drugs

The growing threat of MRSA is only one of many emerging biological enemies, however.

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