M.ethicillin R.esistant S.taphylococcus A.ureus, AKA, MRSA. It’s all over the news and the news is not so good. Though this group of bacteria has been with us for decades, alarming the medical community with its recalcitrance in the face of our most useful antibiotics, its newsworthiness has suddenly soared. That’s partly because of its increasing incidence in the general population (94,000 people are infected annually in the US) and partly because so many of those infected actually die from it (about 19,000).
Last month, my son’s school experienced one of this country’s numerous, well-publicized MRSA outbreaks. Several staff members (though no students) were hospitalized. The TV newshounds set up shop across the street, tying up traffic and generally making a nuisance of themselves.
Parents could be seen screaming their indignation into microphones, “Why didn’t we hear about this before now? How could they allow our children to be exposed to such deadly bacteria without broadcasting its presence?”
Before the day was out, my son has been effectively branded with a large, green, Sharpie-marker circle around one red spot on his arm (likely sustained from our dog Vincent’s playful tusslings or some tree-climbing adventure). He was remanded to the pediatrician’s place ASAP and told to beware of pustular development at the site.
That’s a lot to handle when you’re a nine year-old. He came home scared and confused—not least because half the school’s parents had elected to pick up their children early. (I was working and couldn’t be bothered to freak out over a teeny red spot I’d already observed and discounted, having read about the school’s issue before most other parents). Nonetheless, he’d had to be driven to the doctor, only to be handed a note and told to reprimand the nurse for her breach of privacy over the circle thing.
What a fuss over a red spot! Whose kid doesn’t have at least a few little cuts and scrapes at any given time?
In the school’s defense, MRSA definitely deserves some special attention. That’s because treatment almost invariably requires hospitalization and surgical debridement is often employed to limit its spread. No, it’s not a fun kind of bacterial infection to harbor—not that any ever are. In some cases, patients succumb to its effects, but that’s increasingly rare as long as the site is attended to early on.
Though human-to-human spread (especially in hospital and locker-room settings) is the mainstay of transmission, recent attention has been paid to animal hosts. That’s because the use of antibiotics in our food supply has become an issue for many Americans. And also because pets, too, can harbor MRSA bacteria on their skin just like humans. Their rates of infection with these potentially deadly bacteria are also on the rise. Consequently, that’s led to a great deal of finger-pointing in the pet-vet direction.
For my part, what stresses me most on the subject is not so much the individual pets affected—my cases have all recovered well with appropriate treatment (I’ve seen perhaps five in my career). Rather, I concern myself more with the possibility of animal to human transmission. It seems this is a real possibility, though contamination from pets is still theoretical and requires further study.
To that end, research is currently underway at the University of Missouri. Yet another study is being prepared in association with the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine.
But the larger issue here is even more sinister than the possibility of infection from pets you share your bed with. It’s that our antibiotics, particularly those in the penicillin family, are increasingly useless against a rising tide of so-called “super-bugs” armed with wily genetic mutations geared to surviving our best drugs’ efforts.
Is it the cows, pigs, fish and fowl we overstuff with antibiotics? Is it the chronic antibiotic therapy for persistent skin infections in pets? Is it the round of antibiotics we foist on our flu-ridden children or put down our own gullets whenever a cold threatens? It’s probably all of the above—each situation influencing the evolution of these bacteria to varying degrees.
MRSA may be just the tip of the iceberg when it comes down to the nuts and bolts of antibiotic overuse. Will we have the technological and political wherewithal to stem the tide in time? Not for at least 19,000 of us every year—not unless we find better ways to deal with the problem than circling our children’s lesions with Sharpie markers and pointing fingers at pets.
PS: Thank you to the Veterinary News Network for providing valuable information, including statistics, for this post.