Are We Finally Outsmarting the MRSA Superbug?

Study Highlights Decrease in Drug-Resistant Staph Infections in and out of Hospitals

By Denise Mann
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

July 3, 2012 -- Rates of drug-resistant staph infections seem to be on the decline in the community at large as well as in hospitals and nursing homes.

A new study of more than 9 million military personnel showed that rates of both community- and hospital-acquired MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) blood infections decreased from 2005 to 2010. The proportion of community-acquired MRSA-related skin and soft tissue infections peaked in 2006 at 62%, and then declined to 52% in 2010.

Rates of another "super bug," MSSA (methicillin-sensitive Staphylococcus aureus) infections, also declined during the five-year study.

The findings appear in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

"This is a very good news story," says researcher Clinton K. Murray, MD. He is an infectious disease specialist with the San Antonio Military Medical Center in Fort Sam Houston, Texas.

Researchers don't know precisely why MRSA and MSSA infections are going down. "Some may be due to infection control measures in hospitals and better use of antibiotics," he says.

But outside experts caution that these infections remain a serious threat to our health, and we can't afford to let our guard down now.

What Is MRSA?

MRSA is spread through direct contact. This includes touching an infected person or objects that have the bacteria on them. MSSA is spread in a similar fashion.

MRSA is carried by about 1.5% of the U.S. population, although they aren't infected. People at risk for MRSA infections include people who have weakened immune systems and are in hospitals, nursing homes, and other heath care centers. These infections can appear around surgical wounds or implanted devices such as feeding tubes.

MRSA can also be found in healthy people in the community. Community-acquired MRSA infection often begins as a painful pimple or boil that resembles a bug bite.

"Hospitals' and nursing homes' increased focus on infection prevention may have helped decrease the burden of these infections," says Donna Armellino, a registered nurse and the vice president of infection prevention at North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System in Great Neck, N.Y.

These measures may have spilled over into the community, she says. "There is more awareness and a greater focus on hand hygiene and infection control."

MRSA Prevention

Kyle Popovich, MD, says the new findings suggest that the MRSA epidemic has plateaued. She is an infectious disease physician at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

The decline in skin and soft tissue infections may be related to fewer cultures, not an actual decrease. "Doctors may just treat the infection after looking at it, without sending the culture off to the lab," she says. The study only looked at lab cultures.

"The burden of community MRSA, especially skin and soft tissue infections, is still high," Popovich tells WebMD.

MRSA prevention is key, she says.

This includes:

  • Washing your hands with soap and water
  • Proper wound care
  • Not sharing personal items such as towels and razors

It's also important to seek medical attention for skin irritations that may look like a pimple or bug bite, but don't get better and are accompanied by fever and chills, Murray says.

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SOURCES: Landrum, M.L. Journal of the American Medical Association, 2012. Clinton K. Murray, MD, infectious disease specialist, San Antonio Military Medical Center in Fort Sam Houston, Texas. Kyle Popovich, MD, infectious disease physician, Rush University Medical Center, Chicago. Donna Armellino, RN, vice president, infection prevention, North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System, Great Neck, N.Y. CDC: "MRSA Surveillance."

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