It can all begin with something so simple such as a shaving cut. The MRSA organism may have been living on that person for some time, with no symptoms being demonstrated. However, once that shaving cut appears, the bacteria can enter the bloodstream. Then MRSA becomes much more serious.
The MRSA Superbug Enters the Bloodstream
Once SA bacteria is able to enter the bloodstream, almost any part of the body can be affected. The bacteria can cause:
- Septicaemia (blood poisoning) – the type of MRSA infection with the highest death rate;
- Lung infection (pneumonia);
- Septic shock;
- Bone marrow infection (osteomyelitis);
- Inflammation of the tissues that surround the brain and spinal cord (meningitis);
- Infection of the heart lining (endocarditis)
- Severe joint problems (septic arthritis);
- Internal abscesses.
At this stage MRSA can become fatal in about 10 – 20% of cases. Incidence of MRSA, although declining slightly according to government statistics, have increased substantially over the past decade. In 1993, the superbug caused 51 deaths. In 2005, the figure was 1,629.
Why the MRSA Superbug is so Dangerous
The MRSA superbug is able to survive treatment by antibiotics such as methicillin and penicillin. This becomes particularly dangerous in the case of hospital MRSA, because it affects patients with already compromised immune systems. Patients from intensive care units, burns units, surgical and orthopaedic wards are particularly at risk.
The Role of the Media and the MRSA Superbug
It is not the case that coverage of the MRSA superbug is simply ‘news hype’. Nevertheless, the media does not always present a balanced report and viewers do not necessarily remember the critical points. About 30% of the entire population are MRSA carriers of (or colonised with) SA bacteria. Most do not develop an infection and therefore most do not demonstrate any symptoms. The bacteria can be found everywhere – telephones at work, elevator buttons, office pc keyboards, clothing.
The media tend not to report on the relatively harmless community-acquired MRSA that affects younger and otherwise healthy people. MRSA rarely presents a danger to the general public but this does not seem to be the media interpretation. The media focuses on where the deaths are – hospital-acquired MRSA, ‘killer MRSA and VRSA’.
The ‘Killer’ MRSA Superbug
A rare mutation of CA-MRSA produces the lethal toxin panton–valentine leucocidim (PVL). PVL destroys white blood cells, destroying a person’s immune system and leaving it too weak to fight infection. Pneumonia, very high temperature and coughing up blood are all symptoms. Alarmingly, only a quarter of victims survive PVL if it spreads to the lungs.
The VRSA Superbug
VRSA is Vancomycin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. It is a rare strain of MRSA that is resistant to Vancomycin, the drug of last resort. Vancomycin is used to treat MRSA when other drugs have failed (see Vancomycin and MRSA). The unnecessary overuse of antibiotics over a number of years is believed to be responsible for the bacteria’s resistance. The presence of VRSA does not signal death however. Oral drugs such as Linezolid, Doxycycline or Minocycline can be used.
MRSA Superbug: In Summary
The MRSA superbug is very serious but news coverage tends to focus on the death-related incidents where the superbug has entered the bloodstream and does not always present a balanced picture. Most of the 30% of the population who are colonised with SA bacteria, will show no symptoms. News coverage focuses on hospital MRSA, ‘killer‘ MRSA and VRSA, the latter two being extremely rare. Despite public perception, MRSA can be serious but in the majority of cases, is by no means incurable.