The fight for life against superbugs

Maryn McKenna's book, Superbug: The Fatal menace of MRSA, reminds us that MRSA isn't going away.
Written by Boonsri Dickinson, Contributing Editor

Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin, would be surprised to know that 18,650 people died from a superbug infection in 2005. Some experts warn that we are at the end of the antibiotic era.

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, is a group of bacteria that lives innocently on our skin and in our nose. The trouble arises when antibiotics can't kill them. When the bacteria enters the blood stream, it begins to attack the body. This is when the infection can grow so large only surgery can get rid of the drug resistant bug.

My friend almost lost an arm after he was infected with MRSA. Fortunately, he recovered. But some can end up loosing their limbs and can die if the staph infection takes over their body.

Besides efforts to treat MRSA infections, researchers are hunting down superbug infections so they can monitor the spread of the drug-resistant bacteria:

The team sequenced the whole genomes of all the samples and were able to spot single-letter changes in the genetic code and identify differences between even the most closely related bugs.

From the results they created an "evolutionary tree" which showed that MRSA infections are often clustered in locations, but can be spread across borders [of countries] by patients traveling.

As hospitals work on controlling MRSA, researchers are finding another type of superbug called Clostridium difficile, or C-diff, is on the rise. C-diff is found in the colon and can lead to diarrhea and a more serious condition known as colitis.

In a study done in 28 hospitals, scientists showed the infection rate of C-diff was 25 percent higher than MRSA infections. Aware of the growing problem, researchers are working on attacking the coating and the toxins released by C-diff. In the meantime, washing your hands will go a long way to prevent its spread.

For the bigger scoop on superbugs, read science writer Maryn McKenna's book, Superbug: The Fatal Menace of MRSA. Or just listen to her interview on NPR's "Fresh Air':

"MRSA lives not just in people who are debilitated and ill and who are in hospitals but in all of us walking around all the time. But it was always thought — from about the 1960s when it first sparked up to the 1990s — that the only place where it was successful in attacking people was in hospitals because [patients] are debilitated and ill. And then in the 1990s, a group of researchers at the University of Chicago noticed that they were seeing infections in children that looked very like those hospital infections and yet these kids had never been anywhere near a hospital. And it turned out that there was a slightly different strain of staph that had adapted itself to live in the community and cause infections that are serious — and sometimes more serious — than the ones that were being caused in hospitals."

Photo Credit: Janice Haney, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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