Dangerous MRSA Expanding Into Communities

7:51 PM, Dec 16, 2013   |    comments
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Peter Eisler, USA TODAY

Eric Allen went to bed March 1, thinking he had a light flu. By the time he staggered into the hospital in London, Ky., the next day, he was coughing up bits of lung tissue. Within hours, organs failing, he was in a coma.

Tests showed that Allen, 39, had a ravaging pneumonia caused by methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant bacteria once confined to hospitals and other health care facilities. Allen hadn't been near a doctor or a hospital.

Same with the next victim, a 54-year-old man, who came in days later and died within hours. And the victim after that, a 28-year-old woman, dead on arrival.

The doctors were alarmed.

"What really bothered me was the rapidity of their deterioration, a matter of hours," says Muhammad Iqbal, a pulmonologist who chairs the infection control committee at Saint Joseph-London hospital. "We were worried that something was spreading across the community."

Indeed, a deadly form of MRSA had sprung from nowhere, picking off otherwise healthy people. The cases thrust Iqbal and his colleagues to the front lines of modern medicine''s struggle against antibiotic resistant bacteria - perhaps the nation's most daunting public health threat. No drug-defying bug has proved more persistent than MRSA, none has caused more frustration and none has spread more widely. In recent years, new MRSA strains have emerged to strike in community settings, reaching far beyond hospitals to infect schoolchildren, soldiers, prison inmates, even NFL players.

A USA TODAY examination finds that MRSA infections, particularly outside of health care facilities, are much more common than government statistics suggest. They sicken hundreds of thousands of Americans each year in various ways, from minor skin boils to deadly pneumonia, claiming upward of 20,000 lives. The inability to detect or track cases is confounding efforts by public health officials to develop prevention strategies and keep the bacteria from threatening vast new swaths of the populatio

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