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MRSA Infections - A Rising Health Problem

All About MRSA Infections

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Updated March 23, 2009

Staphylococcus aureus

Staphylococcus aureus

Photo: Scott Camazine / Getty Images
MRSA is an abbreviation for methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus, which is a mouthful to say a MRSA infection is a Staphylococcus aureus (a bacterial “staph” infection) that is resistant to many of the standard antibiotics. Here’s what’s going on -– about 30% of all people are colonized (on their skin or in their nose) with Staphylococcus aureus. Colonization simply means that the Staphylococcus aureus bugs are harmlessly hanging out on our skin. No big deal, lots of microorganisms are hanging out on the outside of our bodies, Staphylococcus aureus is just one of them.

Must Read: Protect Yourself from MRSA Infections

Staphylococcus AureusInfections, Years Ago

But if this Staphylococcus aureus gets to where it’s not supposed to be (say under your skin through a wound) and your immune system isn’t up to the challenge, you could end up with a “Staph” infection. “Staph” infections are an endemic (always present) infection in hospitals. Since 30% of people are colonized, it means “Staph” is everywhere. The “Staph” on the outside of your body gets inside or a nurse, after touching one patient, forgets to wash her hands and brings that patient’s Staphylococcus aureus bugs into your wound. Out in the world, all the Staphylococcus aureus isn’t a big deal -– we typically don’t have open wounds and our immune system is working great. But in the hospital, so many people have open skin (because of surgery, intravenous catheters, injuries, etc.) and their immune system is not 100% (because of illness), that “Staph” infections are common.

Antibiotics used to do a pretty good job fighting off “Staph” infections, until the Staphylococcus aureusbegan to adapt to the infections. Some of the Staphylococcus aureus, just by random chance, wasn’t as harmed by the antibiotics as others. Those organisms survived, multiplied and created more Staphylococcus aureus just like them –- resistant to antibiotics. Over time, these clever bugs became so resistant, that our arsenal of antibiotics just doesn’t work anymore. These new bugs are called “Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus aureus” or MRSA. In 1961, the first MRSA bacteria were identified. Since then the strain is resistant not just to methicillin but to amoxicillin, penicillin, oxacillin, and many other antibiotics.

MRSA Infections Today

It is estimated that about 5% of people in the U.S. are colonized with MRSA (meaning, the MRSA is on their skin or in their nose, but they are not “infected” -– they are just carrying the bacteria around). People who are colonized have a higher risk of getting a MRSA infection -– for example, if a MRSA colonized person has an operation and the MRSA bacteria on his skin get into the wound, there could be a big problem.

Not only that, but the MRSA colonized and the MRSA infected spread MRSA bacteria on surfaces in the hospital. It is estimated that 75% of patient rooms are contaminated with MRSA and VRE. Studies show that if a healthcare worker walks into a patient’s room and has no physical contact with the patient, her gloves will still be contaminated 42% of the time, just from touching surfaces in the room.

In 2005, there were 368,600 hospital stays for MRSA infection. This was triple the number of MRSA infections in 2000 and 10 times the number from 1995. Around 60% of all “Staph” infections in hospitals are now MRSA infections. Overall, MRSA is estimated to make up about 8% of all hospital acquired infections.

How Big Is The MRSA Infection Problem?

You’ve probably seen some news coverage about the MRSA problem and how big it is. I don’t want to spread sensation, but it is probably bigger than you think. Here are some factoids about MRSA to give you a better sense of the size of the MRSA infection problem:

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