Two weeks ago, I made an emergency trip home to Minnesota because my grandmother fell ill. She went to the emergency room on a Sunday night, complaining of fatigue and shortness of breath.
The emergency physician diagnosed her with pneumonia and admitted her for the night. Two days later, she was transferred to the intensive care unit and put on a ventilator. My grandma is only 74, healthy and energetic. Her rapid decline shocked my family.
My grandma, however, had not been taking good care of herself since her husband died three weeks earlier. He had many health issues, but at the end, died of MRSA pneumonia. My grandmother slept by his side, caring for him daily during his last days.
No one from the nursing home hospice program or the hospital warned my grandma about the seriousness of this drug-resistent staph infection. No one suggested she take precautions to protect herself or that she be tested as a carrier.
Luckily, my mom mentioned the MRSA to my grandma’s physician early
on so he gave her vancomycin — a powerful antibiotic — from the
start. After a week in the ICU, my grandma was discharged to recover in
the nursing home. She’s going to be OK, but will endure a slow recovery.
MRSA is major public health problem that’s here to stay. People need
to know about it so they can protect themselves. The Seattle Times this
week provided an enormous public health service with its investigation
of MRSA in Washington hospitals and health care settings.
The reporters, Michael Berens and Ken Armstrong, searched through
millions of records in multiple public databases to find that the
number of Washington hospital patients infected with MRSA in the last decade grew from 141 a year to 4,723. They also found 672 previously undisclosed deaths attributable to the bug. It’s truly an amazing feat of investigative journalism.
Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus — MRSA — has been called
the "superbug" because it’s resistant to mainline antibiotics. It’s
been around for decades, but only recently started infecting people
outside of health care settings.
About one-third of U.S. residents are carriers of S. aureus and about 0.8 percent are carriers of MRSA. That means they have the bug and can pass it to others, but won’t necessarily get sick. MRSA is of most concern in people with weakened immune systems.
In 1974, 2 percent of S. aureus infections in U.S. ICUs were MRSA. The proportion increased to 64 percent in 2004. To learn why the prevalence of these infections and resistant bugs has increased, read Jerome Groopman’s story "Superbugs" in the New Yorker.
Berens and Armstrong’s reporting, which continues today and tomorrow, suggests that the Veterans Administration’s practice of testing every hospital patient for MRSA should be applied to all hospitals. They posit that current infection control policies that emphasize hand washing and sterilization aren’t sufficient.
They also point out that Washington does not require public reporting of hospital infections. At least half a dozen states do, and legislation mandating infection control report cards of sorts has been proposed in dozens more.
The Seattle Times created its own database that allows readers to look up the number of MRSA infections in the last decade at all hospitals in the state.
Two months ago, no one in my family had heard of MRSA, but now they all are wary. That’s usually the way it goes: People don’t care about an issue until it directly affects them or a loved one.
Unfortunately, many more people will have personal experiences with this superbug, as a ready solution for the increasing number resistant bugs doesn’t exist.