Harvard Women's Health Watch

Combating MRSA: The drug-resistant "superbug"

Bacteria that don't succumb to the usual antibiotics give everyone the jitters. But there's a lot we can do to keep the upper hand.

Few achievements in modern medicine can rival Alexander Fleming's discovery of penicillin in 1928, which began a cascade of antibiotics that cure infections and save lives. But the widespread use of these lifesaving drugs has led to the rise of drug-resistant bacteria, or "superbugs," which are outwitting even our newest and most powerful antibiotics.

In the fall of 2007, we learned that one such bug — methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) — is much more common than experts had thought and already causing thousands of deaths each year in the United States. Researchers with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provoked a wave of public anxiety when they reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association (Oct. 17, 2007) that MRSA — once largely confined to health care settings — is becoming prevalent in the broader community. Although fears have died down somewhat since then, the report remains as a warning that hospitals and other health care facilities must improve their infection control measures and that doctors must be even more cautious about prescribing antibiotics. The report is also a clarion call to scientists to find new ways to counter such superbugs, and it should remind all of us to reconsider our personal hygiene practices, particularly hand washing.

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