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Experts warn of home remedies

When traditional antibiotics couldn’t heal the oozing infection on Christy Carney’s leg, the Colville, Wash., woman turned to a small shrub that grows in the Southwestern desert.

She claims leaves from chaparral plants, brewed into teas and pounded into poultices, cured the dangerous infection known as MRSA, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus.

“It’s a cleanser to clean and purify your blood,” said Carney, a 56-year-old housecleaner who read about chaparral in a book.

But medical experts, even those who specialize in alternative medicine, warn that trying to treat MRSA infections with home remedies can be a life-threatening mistake.

“It’s a very tough thing to kill, no matter what you try to kill it with,” said Paul Anderson, a naturopath and core faculty member at Bastyr University in Seattle. “If we use a natural agent that doesn’t work, we’ve made the bug stronger.”

Alternative treatments could delay appropriate care, cause side effects, and make minor infections worse, said Dr. Edward Cox, of the federal Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research.

In the weeks since new research showed that serious MRSA infections affected 94,000 Americans in 2005 and killed nearly 19,000, claims of potential cures and preventions for the superbug have proliferated. Books, magazines and the Internet are bursting with natural solutions. Garlic oil. Turmeric. Honey made from the tea tree bush in New Zealand. Silver-laced bandages. Even maggots and an extract derived from the American bullfrog are among the curious cures.

Some remedies have a basis in science, said Dr. Marcia Goldoft, an epidemiologist for the Washington State Department of Health. Silver, for instance, has long been regarded as an antibacterial agent. And the use of sterile maggots in wound healing – known as “larval therapy” – is well-documented, she said. “The science is absolutely sound on that,” Goldoft said.

(For the record, maggots use digestive enzymes to dissolve dead wound tissue and kill MRSA bacteria, said Dr. Ron Sherman, of the BTER Foundation in Irvine, Calif., which promotes larval therapy, among other treatments.)

But with an infection as potentially dangerous – and contagious – as MRSA, people should think twice before reaching for an unproven treatment, Goldoft said.

“Many of these infections will get better on their own with just good wound care,” she added. “It’s only a small minority of these infections that are the serious ones.”

Treatment of serious MRSA infections usually requires intravenous doses of powerful antibiotics such as vancomycin.

Still, for people like Carney, who tried drugs to control her infection, there’s nothing to lose by experimenting with home remedies, too. She buys batches of chaparral leaves at a natural food store and then brews them into a strong-tasting tea. When she was ill, she used the tea in conjunction with external poultices for a month. “I’m not saying this is going to be a cure for everyone,” she said. “I’m just saying this is what helped me.”

That’s the same explanation offered by Tulsa County, Okla., Sheriff Stanley Glanz, who agreed last year to try a nontoxic, silver-based disinfectant created by PURE Bioscience of El Cajon, Calif., to control MRSA outbreaks in his county jail.

“I had 12 cases a month when we started,” said Glanz, whose jail houses 1,500 inmates. “We haven’t had any problems since we started using the product.”

It’s important to use common sense when faced with a serious infection such as MRSA, said Anderson, the naturopath.

“If there’s something natural that helps on the hygiene end, then that’s fine,” he said.

But if the infection won’t heal or gets worse, MRSA is nothing to mess with, he said. “We essentially refer them directly to an infectious disease specialist,” Anderson said.

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