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As increasingly powerful pharmaceutical mixtures become more accessible to the public, scientists are beginning to notice the emergence of more powerful “superbugs,” or drug-resistant infections—especially among the urban poor—that cannot be treated by modern medicine.
New findings raise concerns that the infections could spread quickly due to their untreatable characteristics, especially in areas where close proximity in unsanitary conditions and limited access to preventive health care are common. To date, vancomycin is the only drug that has been proven to treat them, but it is extremely expensive and virtually unattainable to those without health insurance.
A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine by infectious disease experts at several Chicago hospitals discovered that in recent years, untreatable staph infections have risen more than sevenfold, especially in economically depressed areas.
One such pathogen is Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a drug-resistant skin and soft tissue infection that enters the system through skin lesions or cuts, sometimes resulting in deadly pneumonia or septic shock.
The study examined a 464-bed public hospital in Chicago and more than 100 associated clinics around the area, and found that the MRSA incidence rate rose from 24.0 cases per 100,000 people in 2000 to 164.2 cases per 100,000 people in 2005.
Health experts are greatly concerned over those who are in constant close contact with others, such as prison inmates, military recruits, hospital staff and patients, and public housing residents. Other risk factors associated with MRSA include poor hygiene, tattooing and intravenous drug use.
Public health experts caution that research has been conducted only in the public hospital system. To date, the general infection rate among more affluent populations has not yet been calculated.
Although in many cases the bacterium does not kill its host, infiltration of the skin can result in an extended hospital stay, or worse, amputation. In certain instances, diabetic patients who have come to the hospital to have a simple procedure or operation (such as a toe amputation) end up contracting the bacteria and needing an above-knee amputation to effectively rid their bodies of the infection.
One of the reasons experts maintain that the potent strain has developed is the increased use in broad-spectrum drugs. Instead of using a drug that targets a specific problem, doctors have turned to prescribing drugs designed to counter many types of illness, making the body more resistant to stronger pharmaceutical cocktails.
The drug-resistant bacteria has even caused a stir among athletes who participate in full contact sports. In Delaware, several high school wrestlers contracted the bacteria. And last season, two NFL football players contracted MRSA after the bacteria entered their skin through Astroturf abrasions.
Although the bacteria is a health hazard, medical practitioners say it is the long-term economic effects of such superbugs on the American healthcare system that have the potential to cause the most damage. According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), patients who contracted MRSA incurred approximately twice the cost, length of stay and death rate of a typical hospitalized patient.
Currently, the CDC National Healthcare Safety Network, made up of approximately 300 U.S. hospitals, monitors occurrences of MRSA and other infections. Experts maintain they are greatly concerned over the rising incidences across the world, and their ability to treat the superbugs effectively before the bacteria becomes unstoppable.