Peg McQueary is at war with bugs. They live inside her and she often leaves the invisible critters behind on the surfaces she touches. She can't see her enemies, only the nagging evidence they leave behind on her body.
They're microscopic and a million years old. Her weapons for battling them are heavy-duty antibiotics and disinfectants such as Lysol and bleach that she uses to clean her home. Despite her constant fighting back, the bugs are outsmarting her.
"There's a war between bugs and drugs, and the bugs are winning," said McQueary, who is 43 years old and lives in Roseville, Calif.
Her battle started three years ago, when she nicked her leg shaving on New Year's Eve.
"Two weeks later I was sicker than anybody can imagine — fever, nausea, just fatigued, very badly fatigued," McQueary said.
McQueary had no idea that her illness had anything to do with the small cut on her leg. She took a few days off from work and noticed that her leg and ankle had swelled.
"My leg and my ankle swelled to almost three times its normal size," McQueary said. "I got into the doctor, and he took one look at it and said, 'Oh my God, Peg, I think this is MRSA.'"
MRSA stands for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, and is one of a number of bacterial infections commonly found in hospitals. But now, it is being found with an increasing frequency outside hospitals. McQueary isn't sure where she got it.
"That's what's frightening — very frightening— because everything that you touch has a potential of having that illness on it," McQueary said. "Elevator buttons, stairways, your keyboards at work, your telephones at work, it's everywhere."
Dr. Chip Chambers, chief of the Infectious Diseases Division at San Francisco General Hospital, said MRSA is an organism that stays with you but doesn't always affect those it lives within. MRSA can become fatal when it enters a sore or a pimple and gets into the bloodstream. The bacterial infection that was once confined to hospitals has now spilled out into communities at alarming rates, Chambers said.
"In the mid '90s and later, these strains began to be detected in people who had no hospital contact," Chambers said.
MRSA, and other bacterium like it, have become so prevalent in communities, and so resistant, that it's called a superbug. Chambers said the superbug is fatal in about 10 to 20 percent of cases in which there is a bloodstream infection.
As recently as mid-February, a 20-year-old college student in Washington state thought he was was battling the flu before he died from MRSA. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that 19,000 Americans die from the infection each year.
CA-MRSA, which signifies the community-acquired kind of MRSA, came full focus in the news last fall after a 12-year-old middle school student, Omar Rivera, died from it in Brooklyn, N.Y. His death set off a panic in schools. That same month, 17-year-old Ashton Bonds, a Virginia high school football player, died after contracting it. News of the so-called superbug was everywhere and catching doctors by surprise. They were not used to seeing the infection outside of hospitals, and were too often missing the signs.
Anyone can get a staph or MRSA infection, Chambers said.