Staphylococcus aureus, a bacterium known by its nickname "staph," has been the bane of medical experts for decades. Not just because it can trigger nasty blood, bone and skin infections, but because the stubborn microbe has a striking ability to mutate and thwart antibiotic drugs. Until recently, such resistant strains appeared to be confined to hospital settings and nursing homes--where infections can spread rapidly--and were of little concern to the public. But last week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that over the past two years, drug-resistant staph had killed four otherwise healthy children in Minnesota and North Dakota. And the bug had made at least 200 other people in the region sick. Whether the strain escaped from a hospital and spread or originated at the community level is still unclear. But, either way, "this signifies another step backward in our battle against resistant bacteria," says lead investigator Dr. Tim Naimi.
The children who died, aged 12 months to 13 years, had symptoms such as high fevers and rashes. They were initially treated with antibiotics that can obliterate nonresistant staph infections--the type normally seen outside hospitals. But the children had somehow contracted a strain called methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, which is resistant to many drugs, including those they were given. When they failed to get better, several got vancomycin, a powerful antibiotic of last resort capable of killing MRSA if used quickly. But it was too late. The bacteria had ravaged the children's bodies; they died of complications such as organ failure and cardiovascular collapse.
Because the children were a racially mixed group from both rural and urban areas, researchers say MRSA could well exist elsewhere in the country. Rather than panic us, the findings, they say, should put us on the alert. Doctors should prescribe antibiotics only when absolutely necessary, since excessive use provokes resistant bacteria, including MRSA. And now that MRSA has been identified outside a hospital, physicians should perform appropriate tests so that patients are given the right drugs without delay. "These infections can be controlled if diagnosed and treated properly," says Naimi. To that, there should be no resistance at all.