The most frightening epidemic since AIDS?
Journalist Maryn McKenna slaps that label on MRSA – a strain of staph and also one of the most common bacteria on the planet. MRSA has grown resistant to almost all the antibiotics used to treat infections every day.
It began as a hospital bug, she says.
Now it is emerging in communities and schools, in farm animals and nursing homes. An estimated 4 million Americans are carrying the bug unknowingly.
McKenna details the staph that can kill in her new book, “Superbug, The Fatal Menace of MRSA.”
Q. This is the first book on MRSA, and it’s scary. You talk about the infection beginning in hospitals and now in the community, the food we eat.
A. We need to be looking at this as an epidemic. It causes significant illness. The medical community has said “we can handle it” for 40 years now, and I think it’s time everyday people were aware of it.
Q. What exactly is MRSA?
A. MRSA stands for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. It can be fatal. Most MRSA occurs in hospitals, but now there is another type showing up in the community. And its involvement in the food chain has really shown me our food could be unsafe.
Q. I’ve read that MRSA hangs out on our skin and in our nostrils. Not everyone gets the symptoms, that look like small red bumps resembling pimples or boils or spider bites. But these can turn into abscesses that require surgical draining, can penetrate the body and cause life-threatening infections in bones joints, surgical wounds, blood streams, heart valves and lungs. Why aren’t we doing more to stop it?
A. We don’t know we have a problem until we are made aware of it. When something new happens, how do we know when it arrives and how do we convince the rest of the establishment to pay attention?
It’s really hard to know how worried we should be. Just seeing the way it has spread around the world … well, is this as bad as it’s going to get or the beginning of an epidemic curve?
Strains are already found in animals and caused concern in the European Union, Canada, the U.S. It has caused human illness in the Netherlands, Scotland, to people who work on pig farms in Canada.
Q. What causes MRSA to spread?
A. Not having perfect hygiene.
Q. You have done enormous research, showcasing the concerns of some scientists as well as telling the heartbreaking stories of some victims. Is there a solution?
A. Not a lot as yet. People have spent their lives researching for a cure.
We need a strong patient movement. We need legislative response and public health accountability.
And we need more advocacy around getting hospitals to acknowledge their true infection rates and what they are doing to combat MRSA. On a national level, that reporting is often voluntary.
We can’t take for granted that any health care professional will be a better advocate than you can be for yourself.
Now is the time – when you’re in a hospital or doctor’s office – to be brave enough and lucid enough to look at everyone who comes into the room and ask, “Did you wash your hands?”