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MRSA, the superbug

Last week, a report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention disclosed that out of nearly 300 raw meat samples purchased from 30 Detroit supermarkets, six samples tested positive for the bacterium MRSA.

This isn’t the first time MRSA has been found in the meat we eat, not to mention in gyms, hospitals and on commuter trains. Resistant to antibiotics and growing tougher by the year, MRSA has been touted as a superbug for our end times, responsible for 19,000 deaths each year in the U.S. Are its rising rates a true public health calamity or an overblown cause for alarm? Here’s what you should know.

1. It’s not necessarily flesh eating.

MRSA is a strain of the Staphylococcus aureus bacteria, otherwise known as S. aureus, that’s resistant to methicillin antibiotics used against  infections. Regular S. aureus is actually common – healthy people can have it on their skin or inside their noses. It’s when MRSA gets into a cut, catheter, or open wound and enters your bloodstream that an infection can get serious. Gone unchecked, it attacks the immune system and can lead to complications such as blood poisoning, pneumonia, organ failure and even death.

Though characterized as a flesh-eating superbug, MRSA infections can start off as simple as a boil or pimple and can become an abscess, blister or sore. See a list of symptoms.

2. The sick are getting sicker.

MRSA infections are occurring with rising frequency in hospitals, where staph bacteria wreak havoc on patients who are already weakened. Hospital-acquired infections are blamed for more than 98,000 deaths in the U.S. each year. Sixty-three percent of staph infections were caused by MRSA in 2004, in contrast with only 22 percent in 1995 and 2 percent in 1974.

MRSA germs can live for hours on the surfaces of blood-pressure cuffs or other medical equipment, and are transmitted easily between patients and health care workers. Screening patients for MRSA, or even requiring health care workers to wash their hands more often, would help stem infections, but cost is often cited as an issue. Treating a MRSA infection is even more pricey: one study found that the average cost is $47,000.

3. Not your grandmother’s MRSA.

Today’s newer, stronger strain of MRSA isn’t just threatening the old and the infirm. These so-called community-associated MRSA infections are occurring in healthier and younger individuals who haven’t been hospitalized. Gym equipment, tattoo parlors and shared towels or razor blades are some common ways of spreading infections. Outbreaks are more likely to occur where people are in close proximity to one another, such as in schools, gyms and prisons.

Another culprit may be the prevalence of antibiotic use, which has produced more virulent strains of bacteria that are harder to wipe out. Community-associated MRSA is one such strain, and as it gets stronger, it’s getting more difficult to treat.

4. Blame the animal farm.

In 2004,  a MRSA link was found between pigs and humans in the Netherlands, when several family members, workers and pigs on one hog farm all tested positive for the bacteria. Pig farmers in the Netherlands were reported to be 760 times more likely to have MRSA than the general population. In the U.S., 45 percent of pig farmers and 49 percent of pigs tested were also found to have MRSA (carriers don’t necessarily have symptoms).

What’s the connection? Industrial livestock farming, which houses animals in very close quarters, necessitates feeding these animals antibiotics so they don’t become infected by unsanitary living conditions. One 2001 study concluded that healthy livestock consumes 70 percent of all antibiotics in the U.S. The result is that the animals grow faster, but they’re also more likely to become resistant to antibiotics. MRSA bacteria can then be passed on to humans who handle the animals or drink groundwater that’s been polluted from hog farms.

5. The future is murky.

MRSA in your meats isn’t a death sentence. The strain of MRSA discovered in the Detroit grocery stores was a human strain, possibly passed on by food handlers or in processing plants. The infection could be passed on to consumers if they handled raw meat while having open cuts on their hands, for instance (wear gloves for protection if this is the case). Cooking your meat thoroughly and washing any kitchen utensils it touches can get rid of the bacteria.

But as it evolves, MRSA may cease to be treatable. And it won’t be the only antibiotic-resistant bacteria in town: new bacterial strains like Acinetobacter baumannii are proving to be even more challenging to treat. As the Infectious Diseases Society of America claims, growing antibiotic resistance is “an emerging crisis” and “considered a substantial threat to U.S. public health and national security.”