A staph germ that causes thousands of often deadly infections among hospital patients each year is becoming resistant to medicine’s drug of last resort and could soon prove unstoppable.
A new strain of staphylococcus aureus bacteria that was discovered in a Japanese infant showed resistance for the first time against vancomycin, which has been around since 1970 and is used when other antibiotics fail.
The 4-month-old child developed a boil while recovering from heart surgery. The bacteria strain had an “intermediate” level of resistance to the antibiotic - one step away from becoming immune, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.
“The strain is marching up the ladder of resistance,” Dr. Fred Tenover, laboratory chief of the CDC’s hospital infections branch, warned on Wednesday. “It is not a cause for panic, but it is a cause for concern.”
The strain has not yet reached U.S. hospitals, but health experts said it is only a matter of time.
In the meantime, the CDC and other experts said, hospital need to tighten their practices to prevent the spread of germs, and doctors should use antibiotics more sparingly. Pharmaceutical companies are already working on new antibiotics.
Staph bacteria are the No. 1 cause of hospital infections. They are blamed for about 13 percent of the nation’s 2 million hospital infections each year, according to the CDC. Overall, these 2 million infections kill 60,000 to 80,000 people.
Bacteria can collect on clothing, blankets, walls and medical equipment. Hospital workers can pass them on by hand, and they can cling to tubes inserted into the body.
Doctors have long known that many bacteria are growing resistant to antibiotics.
The resistance is attributed to overuse of antibiotics and the failure of some patients to take their medicine properly. Some patients stop taking their medication once they feel better but before the infection has been knocked out, enabling the hardiest germs to survive and multiply.
Before antibiotics, staphylococcus aureus was one of the most deadly germs. The bacteria live harmlessly in the nose and groin but can cause infections if they enter the bloodstream.