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The staph superbug known as MRSA kills more Americans than AIDS

Superbug staph escalates and has solution in best practices by health care workers

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January 2008 -- The staph superbug known as MRSA has been around a long time. But only a few months ago was it revealed that the antibiotic-resistant bacterium has spread beyond the occasional hospital and now kills more Americans than AIDS. We need to take a long-overdue look at hospital procedures, pharmaceutical development and even tatoo methods.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in October '07 that methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus seriously sickened more than 94,000 Americans in 2005 and almost 19,000 died, making it far more common and dangerous than previously believed. By comparison, 17,000 Americans died of AIDS-related causes that year.

Though most infections still occur in hospitals, close to 15% are simply "out there," especially in locker rooms, gyms, prisons and tattoo parlors. In November, another study found that the number of hospitalizations from MRSA had more than doubled in six years.

We know a lot more about how to combat MRSA than we did about AIDS in the early years, and we have far more solutions at our disposal:

  • Simple, cheap soap. Healthcare workers should wash their hands and equipment more often.
  • Certain powerful antibiotics can still kill an infection.
  • Clean hospital surfaces and equipment
  • Testing new patients for the staph infection
But, with a few exceptions, hospitals and public agencies have been slow to gear up against MRSA. More than 30 studies have shown, for example, that healthcare workers wash their hands about half as often as they're supposed to, even though washing before and after seeing each patient would drastically cut down on infection rates.

Hospital surfaces and equipment aren't cleaned as often as they should be, and careless habits -- like touching potentially contaminated surfaces after hands have been washed but before touching the patient -- contribute to the spread.

Testing newly admitted patients also can cut down dramatically on infection rates.

The first order of business should be to get a clear picture of MRSA. Where is it and how prevalent?

An upcoming bill by state Sen. Elaine Alquist (D-Santa Clara) would make MRSA a reportable disease and require hospitals and nursing homes to report their infection rates.

In Tennessee, which tracks MRSA, it quickly became the third most common reportable disease in the state, behind chlamydia and gonorrhea. A similar bill was vetoed in 2004 by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, but the recent news from the CDC should make him rethink his position, despite the almost certain opposition of hospitals.


Edited by Carolyn Allen, owner/editor of California Green Solutions
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