NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


January 23, 2006

Distracted by threats of bioterrorism and the potential for an outbreak of avian flu, most health care workers were caught unaware by a new form of an old foe: the staph infection. Identified as a lethal threat in 1999, this new strain is resistant to drugs and is highly virulent, responsible for 60 percent of all skin and soft-tissue infections treated in the nation's ERs. Infections can recur and ping-pong through families. The germ can penetrate bones and lungs, and the abscesses it causes often require surgery. In severe cases, up to a quarter of patients die, says the Wall Street Journal.

Public-health officials see a silent epidemic on the rise:

  • Almost 1 percent of the population, or more than two million people, carry drug-resistant staph without symptoms, according to Matthew Kuehnert, a medical epidemiologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Carriers can spread the disease and suddenly become acutely ill themselves.
  • In a separate study based on data from 1999 and 2000, Kuehnert estimates there are 292,000 hospitalizations a year for staph, of which 126,000 are for the resistant kind.

Public-health officials have warned for years that heavy use of antibiotics could breed drug-resistant bugs. Unfortunately, the test for drug-resistant staph may not be routinely covered by insurance, so many ER and family doctors don't administer it. Even if they did, the standard test takes up to 48 hours to complete, during which time the most serious cases have often turned fatal, says the Journal.

Now the nation faces a fierce debate over how to stop the bug. Some argue that all hospital patients should be screened, a position rejected by others on the grounds of cost and practicality. There's also little consensus on how to treat drug-resistant staph once it takes root, says the Journal.

Source: Marilyn Chase, "Silent Epidemic: Defying Treatment, A New, Virulent Bug Sparks Health Fears," Wall Street Journal, January 20, 2006.

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