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Making Sense of MRSA

Making Sense of MRSAWith a highly resistant strain of staph infection making its way out of hospitals, Tufts microbiologist Stuart Levy offers perspective how to combat its spread.

Boston [10.29.07] According to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control, the methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) form of staph infection kills more people annually than AIDS, with 13 percent of cases occurring outside the typical staph infection setting of a hospital. The deadly, drug-resistant infection's unexplained foray outside the hospital setting has particularly alarmed many health officials.

"We are in the middle of something explosive," Dr. Stuart Levy, a professor of molecular biology and microbiology at Tufts School of Medicine, told "The country is not what it was 20 years ago," he says. "[The study] shows us that MRSA originates in the community, not just in the hospital."

Levy, who also directs the Tufts Center for Adaptation Genetics and Drug Resistance and leads the Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics, says that much mystery remains around how the infection spreads.

"Why some people carry it healthily and without a problem, and others come down with it... We don't have the answer to that yet," he said told PBS's Online NewsHour. "In the community we're talking about healthy, young, strapping males and females that we don't expect will come down with this kind of infection."

In hospitals, Levy explained, where people are ill and more vulnerable, the spread of staph infections is more understood. But there is less knowledge about how MRSA is affecting healthy individuals in the public sphere.

The bacterium, Levy explained on Online NewsHour, creates a toxic protein that grows quickly and destroys tissue in its path.

"It has just a little bit better way of sitting down on the skin, and a better way of entering and producing these toxic materials that make you very sick and can cause the spread and growth of the infection much quicker [that the hospital-based infection]," Levy, who is also co-founder and chief scientific officer at Paratek Pharmaceuticals, Inc., explained.

The key to preventing the infection's spread, asserts Levy, is regular hand-washing. He told Online NewsHour that today's hectic pace of life can sometimes lead to people being too relaxed about hygiene, which can open the door for infections like MRSA to take root.

"[People] are in meetings, and then everybody says, 'Let's go to lunch.' Meanwhile, all during that period, they've been shaking hands, coughing, sneezing, whatever, and then they go and have lunch, and they eat with their hands," Levy explained. "I somehow feel that every meeting should have a wash-hands break."

That's not to say people should be afraid to shake hands, the Tufts expert explained. Many individuals carry the staph infection without themselves becoming infected.

"There is nothing particularly bad about shaking hands," Levy told Online NewsHour. "It's not going to mean that, if you do pick up a random MRSA, that it's going to cause an infection in you. It's not all that common."

Staph infections are also spread through hand-to-mouth transfer and lacerations after skin contact obtained through contact sports, he said.

While people may be inclined to react to these developments by using more antibacterial soaps and cleansers, Levy says that may do more harm than good by encouraging the bacteria to develop resistance to these types of products and reducing their effectiveness.

Antibacterial cleansers, he told, "may change the microbiology" of the infectious agents. They should be reserved for use with those who are seriously ill and vulnerable, and even then in limited doses. Soap or alcohol-based hand sanitizers are recommended in place of such cleansers.

"If you're treating an infection, that cost is well worth it, there is a real benefit," Levy told Online NewsHour. "But the overuse for viral illnesses, the overuse by misuse, the overuse in animals-this is wasting good products and creating this resistance, which comes back to everyone in society, those that take the antibiotics and those that don't."

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