Staph infection becomes a bigger threat, state health experts says

Wednesday, October 17, 2007 | 10:00 p.m. CDT; updated 8:56 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — Potentially fatal infections are so common in Missouri that there is no record of how many cases the state’s Department of Health has seen.

Deadly infections contracted by people of all ages may be more deadly than AIDS, medical experts announced this week. Methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, also known as a staph infection, is becoming a bigger threat, especially in high schools. In Virginia, a 17-year-old died Monday after contracting the infection.

Eddie Hedrick, coordinator of emerging infections for the Missouri Department of Health, said that the MRSA bug grows and produces a toxin called panton valentine leukocidin that breaks down the immune system and weakens the body’s ability to fight the infection. The infection appears as boils, pimples and infected wounds.

But despite its recent outbreak, staph infections are not a recent development.

“This isn’t new,” Hedrick said. “It started in the mid-1980s and is continuing to grow.”

Experts say there is still confusion as to where the infection originally came from. Hedrick said that some of the earliest cases were seen in Native Americans and Aborigines.

“The new guy on the block is one that we call community-acquired MRSA, and it’s a whole different bug,” Hedrick said. Although it is more easily treatable, it is also more capable of causing severe disease.

This particular strain became visible in 2002, and Hedrick said that close to 90,000 people in the U.S. have the infection. About 20 to 30 percent of cases are community-acquired.

Hedrick said one obstacle in combating the infection is that infected areas often look like spider bites, and doctors misdiagnose it. It is also confused with a hospital-acquired strain that is treated with the drug Vancomycin. The community-acquired infection cannot be treated the same way.

Community-acquired MRSA is most often spread in locker rooms, day cares and prisons. Bad hygiene, skin diseases and cuts and scabs are common incubators. Two years ago, members of the St. Louis Rams suffered an outbreak of community-acquired MRSA after players shared towels and razors.

Hedrick said incision and drainage can get rid of the infection in its earliest stages. Even in later stages, mild prescriptions are also effective. Hedrick said that the “King Kong”-type of prescription drugs used to knock out the infection are not necessary most of the time.

Tom Quinn, the director of school governance for the state, said he does not think that MRSA is an immediate concern. “It’s really a nonissue.” he said.

Quinn said he was confident that if an outbreak occurred, Missouri school districts would be prepared.

Brian Geisbrecht, assistant professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s School of Biological Sciences, said that, by and large, the infection does not specifically target its hosts.

“Some percentage of people are going to be coming down with staph infections just by bad luck,” he said.

Geisbrecht also expressed concern about the effectiveness of prescription drugs used for the quickly-spreading infection.

“They are perfectly suited to adapting to different types of situations that they encounter, and one of those situations is exposure to antibiotics,” Geisbrecht added.

Although they might be effective initially, he said bacteria might be becoming drug resistant.

“They will evolve ways of counteracting the function of those drugs,” he said.

Hedrick said the key is educating the medical community about what to look for and what kind of medications to treat with.

“A lot of it’s just good hygiene. It’s not rocket science,” Hedrick said.

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