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MRSA, Other Drug Resistant Bacteria Emerge as Serious Threat to Public Health

Oct 23, 2007 | Parker Waichman LLP MRSA, a type of bacteria that sometimes causes deadly infections, and other germs are quickly becoming resistant to most common antibiotics.  These drug-resistant strains now pose a major public health crisis, as doctors are left with fewer and fewer options for fighting them.

MRSA, short for methicillin-resistant Staphlococcus aureas, has been making news for several weeks, after it turned up in at least a half dozen of schools across the country.  The drug resistant infection recently killed one student in Virginia, and according to the Centers for Disease Control, this “Superbug” is responsible for more deaths each year in the United States than the AIDS virus.  

But despite the recent publicity surrounding MRSA, the germ is nothing new.   For years it has been a problem in hospitals, and it is only recently that MRSA started appearing in the community at large.  While most cases of MRSA usually only result in a mild skin infection, at times the bacteria can enter the blood stream where it can be fatal.  The fact that MRSA has developed a serious resistance to antibiotics is what makes it so frightening.

But MRSA is not the only antibiotic-resistant bacteria floating around.  Unfortunately, as antibiotic use – some might say overuse – has increased, the numbers of drug resistant bacteria have also gone up.  Recently, a new strain of Streptococcus pneumoniae has emerged that is resistant to 18 complex drugs.  Most of the antibiotics that have been approved for children won’t work on this infection, so doctors treating a case of Streptococcus pneumoniae must make some tough choices.  Usually, that involves using a drug like Cipro, which is known to have dangerous side effects when used in children.

While scientists race to figure out how to fight off drug resistant infections, they have no doubt what has caused these bacteria to emerge.  The main culprit is overuse of antibiotics.  Antibiotic overuse kills weak germs but leaves the stronger ones behind.  Once, it was not unusual for doctors to prescribe antibiotics for just about everything – a practice that has stopped.   But patients are to blame too, because when they are treated with an antibiotic, they often don’t finish the full course.  Again, this kills the weak bugs, and leaves the stronger behind, allowing them to develop resistance to the medicine.

But antibiotic use in people is not the only culprit.  Antibiotics have long been used by farmers and ranchers to keep their live stock healthy.  Some epidemiologists believe that the widespread use of antibiotics in cattle allowed once harmless E. coli bacteria to morph into the E. coli 0157 H7 strain that is now responsible for killing 61 people every year.  

Finally, the pharmaceutical industry is doing little to help in the fight against drug resistant bacteria.   Tthe drug companies would rather focus their efforts on developing drugs  that patients take for their entire lives - like statins - which are extremely profitable. Antibiotics are only taken by patients for a short period, so they’re not big money makers.  

But even critics of the drug industry say that big pharma alone can’t fight the threat posed to public heath by superbugs like MRSA.  Most experts say that it will take a partnership between government, the medical community, drug companies and even private citizens to fight off nasty bugs like MRSA.

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