Drug-resistant bugs growing in number

BY SAM LANE | FEBRUARY 22, 2010 7:30 AM

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For roughly two and a half years, the UI has been at the forefront of research into one of the most common pathogens affecting Americans.

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus is a pathogenic bacteria that can be seen in both humans and animals. They are unique in that they are resistant to the antibiotic methicillin. They can cause skin infections, serious disease, and sometimes death.

In the late 1950s, when the first cases occurred, researchers mostly saw cases among hospitalized individuals and others involved in the health-care community. However, beginning in the 1990s, the bacteria have become an issue in the general community.

And as the number of cases rises nationwide, some officials are becoming increasingly concerned. In Iowa, where it has been more prevalent in pigs, officials believe Iowans should simply be aware.

“I think it’s a serious problem,” said Tara Smith, a UI assistant professor of epidemiology and a leader in the University of Iowa’s research. “For those of us in public health, it’s something to be concerned about. The average Joe on the street shouldn’t lose any sleep over it.”

In 2007, Iowa saw 445 cases, a stark contrast from the 102 cases in 1999, according to data from the UI Hygenic Laboratory.

According to a study by the American Medical Association, there were more than 94,000 invasive cases in the United States in 2007, resulting in more than 18,000 deaths.

Besides the obvious toll the bacteria have taken on the population, they are taxing America financially. As of 2007, the infections cost patients and hospitals at least $830 million, according to estimates from a National Hospital Discharge Survey.

One UI study focused on the prevalence of the bacteria in high-school athletes because of a heightened possibility for transmission.

Some who have studied the bacteria nationally are focused on getting the infection on a list of mandatory reportable diseases.

“We have to be certain we update our knowledge,” said Ellen Silbergeld, a professor of environmental health sciences at Johns Hopkins University. “There’s an urgent need for this kind of reporting.”

Loreen Herwaldt, a UI associate professor of infectious diseases and one of Smith’s colleagues, stresses the importance of the bacteria, but she wants to make sure its threat is kept in perspective.

“When we focus only on one organism, we can miss infections caused by other organisms,” she said. “Is reporting in and of itself going to do anything? No.”

As for the future of these infections, officials are hopeful.

“I hope that the future is directed much more toward prevention so we can find where it’s coming from and what are the risk factors,” Silbergeld said. “Then we can prevent it from increasing.”

Smith and Herwaldt say members of the UI community can be proud of the university’s research into the bacteria.

“There are a lot of researchers at the cutting edge,” Smith said. “It’s nice to have our own area of research. It’s fun for us.”

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