While the talking heads on TV have recently reported that thousands of people in the U.S. are now infected with the new "swine flu", or H1N1, there's another infectious disease problem brewing that has received little attention. The over-use and abuse of antibiotics has produced antibiotic-resistant bacteria. According to the National Institutes of Health, over the past forty years, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus has changed from a usually controllable nuisance into a serious public health problem.

At first, it was primarily one of the most common hospital-acquired infections. But in recent years, new strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, often dubbed "super bugs", have popped up in communities and caused severe, even life-threatening infections in otherwise healthy people, involving the skin, heart, blood or bones.

Now a paper just published in the June edition of The Lancet Infectious Diseases discusses an emerging and potentially deadly threat from community acquired methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (CA-MRSA) -- necrotizing, i.e. "flesh eating", pneumonia. And according to previous research published in Nature News, this type of pneumonia is fatal in 75 percent of cases.

Healthy patients hit by flesh-eating bacteria

Doctors at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta write in The Lancet Infectious Diseases article that CA-MRSA has become well known for causing skin and soft-tissue infections that are transmitted by person-to-person contact or contact with contaminated objects. However, now there are increasing cases of CA-MRSA caused pneumonia that kills lung tissue. And those becoming sick with the disease aren't necessarily the old and/or physically weak. In fact, according to the report from the Emory team led by Alicia Hidron, MD, an infectious diseases fellow and Henry Blumberg, MD, professor of medicine and epidemiology at Emory, CA-MRSA pneumonia appears to most commonly affect young and previously healthy patients.

Dr. Hidron and Dr. Blumberg also noted in their paper that, besides causing a high fever, CA-MRSA pneumonia can sometimes cause low blood pressure that progresses to septic shock and requires patients to be placed on mechanical respirators in order to breathe. Another important point discussed in the article may turn out to have special relevance due to the emergence of H1N1 influenza, especially by the time flu season rolls around this fall: potentially deadly CA-MRSA pneumonia appears to occur most commonly following a flu-type illness.

Serious MRSA disease can strike anyone, regardless of age, health or where they live. Outbreaks have occurred among young athletes who play contact sports and among people living in close quarters, such as nursing homes, military facilities, nursing homes, and childcare centers.

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases advises using these precautions to help prevent CA-MRSA infections:
  • Practice good hygiene.
  • Keep cuts and scrapes clean and bandage until healed.
  • Avoid contact with other people's wounds or bandages.
  • Don't share soiled or used personal items, such as towels, washcloths, razors, or clothes.
  • Use hot water and bleach to wash soiled sheets, towels and clothes.

A.I. Hidron, C.E. Low, E.G. Honig, and H.M. Blumberg, Emergence of community-acquired meticillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus strain USA300 as a cause of necrotizing community-onset pneumonia. The Lancet Infectious Diseases, 9, (2009)