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‘Superbug’ bedevils hospitals

A dangerous, drug-resistant staph infection that spreads through touch is about 10 times more common than previously estimated, according to a comprehensive national study released Monday.

Nearly 5 percent of patients in hospitals and nursing homes in the Inland Northwest and elsewhere may be infected with the so-called “superbug” known as MRSA, according to the survey that included information from Sacred Heart Medical Center, Deaconess Medical Center and at least three other area hospitals.

The survey showed the presence of Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus in 46 out of 1,000 patients.

“I was surprised that it was that common,” Roy Almeida, Sacred Heart’s director of epidemiology, said of the figures reported by APIC, the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology.

The news comes days after a Washington lawmaker learned that money to monitor the state’s prevalence of the potentially fatal germ evaporated at the last minute from a new law.

Rep. Tom Campbell, R-Roy, was certain as late as last week that nearly $500,000 for MRSA monitoring was included in a law that takes effect July 22, requiring the state to report hospital-acquired infections starting in 2009.

But Campbell said Monday that the funds disappeared from the Senate budget in the last hours of the legislative session.

“I was working it to the end,” said Campbell. “The specific money for MRSA surveillance – it’s not there.”

The change means that Washington state, like most others, will continue to have little idea of how many cases of the serious infection occur in hospitals and the community.

In Spokane, where at least half of the targeted staph tests are proving resistant to the most common kinds of antibiotics, the issue is a top public health concern, said Dr. Gregory Winter, a psychiatrist at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

“It’s scary primarily because it’s difficult to treat,” he said. “It’s a bug that doesn’t respond to the antibiotics we have to treat it.”

The germ was once found almost exclusively in health care settings, where it thrived in open wounds and infections. But in recent years, new, virulent strains of the bug have become more common in the wider community, spread at health clubs, schools, prisons and other settings through touch or shared objects, such as athletic equipment or towels.

It’s mostly found in nasty skin infections that fail to heal, but MRSA also can cause serious infections in the bloodstream or potentially fatal pneumonia if it gets into the lungs.

Because it’s not a reportable disease, the incidence of MRSA is not tracked by the state health department.

Campbell said he was surprised and disappointed to learn that funding to monitor the problem was scuttled. Ways and Means Chair Sen. Margarita Prentice, D-Renton, said she didn’t recall the details of the MRSA negotiation and referred questions to staff members, who didn’t immediately return calls.

Campbell vowed to submit a supplemental budget in January to make up for the loss.

“It’s a very serious issue, no question,” he said. “We need to get on this now.”

The MRSA funding originally was part of a hard-won law that requires hospitals to collect and report information about health-care associated infections, which will be reported annually on a Department of Health Web site starting Dec. 1, 2009.

Overall, about $1 million was approved over two years to pay for the new requirement, which phases in reporting of bloodstream infections, ventilator-associated pneumonia and surgical site infections. A spokeswoman for the Washington State Hospital Association said Monday that perhaps some of the funding could be diverted to MRSA monitoring anyway.

“Do you think it’s $1 million worth of work?” said spokeswoman Cassie Sauer, who planned to meet with health department officials this week. “They know we’re disappointed that the MRSA money is gone.”

The APIC study surveyed more than 1,200 hospitals, nursing homes and other health-care centers nationwide, or about 21 percent of U.S. inpatient care facilities. Organizers sent surveys to 11,000 members nationwide, including Sacred Heart, Deaconess, Valley Hospital and Medical Center, Holy Family Hospital and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, asking them to pick one day between Oct. 1 and Nov. 10, 2006, to count cases of MRSA.

Figures from individual hospitals weren’t immediately available.

The survey found that MRSA was between eight and 11 times more common than previously estimated.

A lead author of the study, presented at the group’s annual meeting in San Jose, Calif., said the results presented a “grim picture” of the disease in the U.S.

“The findings argue for immediate, aggressive efforts to detect and prevent transmission of MRSA,” said Dr. William Jarvis, principal investigator of the study and president of a private epidemiology firm.


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