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.
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
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