A study published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine revealed MRSA (methicillin-resistant Syaphylococcus aureus) to be the most common cause of skin infection in adults in 11 emergency rooms examined. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that MRSA causes 90,000 serious infections a year, resulting in 17,000 deaths.
Many hospitals across the country have responded with programs to test patients for MRSA in hopes of stopping the problem. For example, last week Veterans Affairs Hospital began testing everyone for the bacteria when they are admitted and discharged. Other hospitals have started more limited testing, restricting the tests to high-risk patients and isolating infected patients.
MRSA has appeared in hospitals since the 1960s, and in the 1990s the bacteria began appearing in athletes, prisoners, military personnel and intravenous drug users outside hospitals. Experts found that a new form of MRSA was being spread by sharing razors and towels, touching contaminated surfaces such as gym machines and being in close contact with infected people. The infection causes skin lesion such as pimples or boils that are frequently misdiagnosed as spider bites.
To motivate more states to take action to prevent MRSA infections, 13 states have started to require public reporting of hospital-acquired infections. Currently 17 other states have similar legislation pending.
Experts say MRSA infections should be reported on a national level to help focus prevention efforts. "We're counting cases of chicken pox and measles, for which there are vaccines," says Dr. William Jarvis, an infection control consultant. "We should be counting MRSA."