The tragic death of a 17-year-old high school student in Virginia from Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, has brought this bacterium, termed a “superbug” by some, to the forefront of the public health discussion.

MRSA, a type of staph infection that is resistant to certain antibiotics, usually shows up as a skin infection.  Occasionally, the infection can enter the bloodstream, which can make it more dangerous.

MRSA occurs most frequently among patients in health care facilities who have weakened immune systems. In most communities, it is estimated that 5 – 20 percent of staph infections are caused by this drug-resistant strain.  However, a recent upswing in the number of cases in otherwise healthy people who have not recently been in a health care setting has garnered media attention and concern from the medical community.

The instances of blood-borne MRSA have steadily climbed in Louisiana over the past several years.  Louisiana MRSA data, 1999 – 2006:

1999 - 346 cases 
2000 - 437 cases  
2001 - 420 cases 
2002 - 495 cases
2003 - 733 cases
2004 - 887 cases
2005 - 739 cases
2006 - complete data not yet available

According to Dr. Raoult Ratard, state epidemiologist, “The main source of this infection is person-to-person contact, as one percent of the population has this type of bacteria on their skin or in their nasal cavities. You can also come in contact with MRSA from surfaces, such as towels and sports equipment.”

Ratard also emphasized that good hygiene is the best way for people to protect themselves from this superbug. “Proper hand-washing habits and good housekeeping habits are the best way to protect yourself and your family, and should be practiced all the time, by everyone,” he said.

Experts also blame the overuse of antibiotics as an underlying cause in the increase in the number of MRSA cases. As the cold and flu season approaches, Ratard and other health officials stress that antibiotics do not fight these viruses and only make bacterial superbugs stronger.

“Colds, flu, most sore throats and bronchitis are caused by viruses. Antibiotics do not help fight viruses, and they may do more harm than good: taking antibiotics when they are not needed – and cannot treat the illness – increases the risk of a bacterial infection later,” said Dr. Catrin Jones-Nazar, antibiotic resistance coordinator with DHH’s Office of Public Health.

According to Jones-Nazar, antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria change in a way that reduces or eliminates the effectiveness of antibiotics. These resistant bacteria survive and multiply – causing more harm, such as a longer illness, more doctor visits and a need for more expensive and toxic antibiotics. Resistant bacteria may even cause death.

Over the past two years, the Department of Health has implemented a Get Smart about antibiotics educational campaign targeted to hospitals, clinics, doctors and schools about MRSA.

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