October 31, 2007

Gannett: No Need For Outcry Over ‘Super Bug’

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A recent series of deadly methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus infections — the “super bug” — have driven the nation into a panic, but some health officials are saying this widespread fear is a severe overreaction.
“It’s not a threat to the average person. It can cause minor to serious cases only under specific circumstances,” said Claire Pospisil, spokesperson for the New York State Department of Health.
This specific staph-infection causing bacteria strain, identified over 40 years ago, typically occurs in healthcare settings, but recent media coverage has emphasized dangers posed to the general population from community-associated MRSA which is spread by poor hygiene and close personal contact. Stories of high school and college students becoming severely ill, in some cases even dying, from MRSA have forced many people to think seriously about the potential dangers posed by the bacteria and take precautions against it.
However, according to Sharon Dittman, associate director of community relations at Gannett, many of the concerns erupting from this coverage and drastic prevention measures being taken — closing schools, canceling sports events, disinfecting entire facilities top to bottom — are out of proportion with the real problem. “This has really scared people into making decisions that may or may not be called for,” she said.
While she encouraged people to take precautions against the bacteria, like washing hands and not sharing personal items such as razors andtowels, Dittman said the potential risk for developing a serious MRSA infection is quite low, even for collegestudents living in close-quarters conditions. Usually present as a mild skin condition, MRSA infections appear as reddened skin rashes that may develop into boils or pimples, causing fevers and pain. Pospisil said that at this stage, the infection is not serious as long as it is taken care of.
She said, “I think for community-associated MRSA cases, the important thing for people to know is if they have a skin infection, they should have a doctor look at it. The sooner they identify it, the better.”
Although the MRSA strain is resistant to methicillin, an antibiotic in the same family as penicillin, infection is treatable. According to Christine Pearson, spokesperson for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these cases can easily be taken care of and are no cause for alarm.
“Most MRSA skin infections are mild and don’t cause death,” she said.
Blaming a misinterpretation of a recent CDC report that found 19,000 people died in 2005 from the antibiotic-resistant bacteria, Pearson said the nation has become overly concerned with MRSA. The study indicated that invasive MRSA cases are a serious problem in hospitals and healthcare clinics, but did not indicate heightened risks for most of the general population.
“There are two different things here,” she said.
According to the CDC, invasive MRSA cases often cause serious complications by infecting bloodstreams and spreading throughout the body, but the more common MRSA skin infections usually do not become this serious.
Different people are susceptible to different stages of MRSA infection. Healthy individuals with infections can typically isolate the problem and easily treat it. On the other hand, people with weak immune systems run a higher risk of developing a case of the potentially deadly invasive MRSA.
While health officials across the country are making attempts to calm down frantic parents and students, many welcome the opportunity to educate people on how to avoid MRSA infections, issuing guidelines and fact sheets about the bacteria.
Pearson said, “It never hurts to remind people about how to stay safe.”
Finding a positive side to the recent nationwide media attention, Dittman said that at least those who do run the risk of developing a life-threatening infection from MRSA will now be aware of the condition. Crediting the CDC report, she said she thinks people will be more likely to understand just how deadly MRSA can be under certain conditions and take the necessary precautions.