While most people view bacterial infections as a nuisance, it is generally assumed that antibiotics can take care of most harmful bacteria. To be sure, antibiotics have saved numerous lives in the since their creation in the mid-20th century, and continue to be widely used today. Unfortunately, certain types of bacteria have developed resistance to these medicines. Perhaps the most well known of these public health threats is Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, commonly referred to as MRSA.
A Common Microbe
In order to get a clearer picture of MRSA, it helps to take a step back and look at Staphylococcus aureus. Abbreviated as S. aureus or simply staph, there’s a good chance that this type of bacteria is lurking in your body at this very moment. It is estimated that roughly 20 to 30 percent of Americans have staph bacteria in their noses.
This data might seem rather alarming, until you consider the fact that S. aureus usually doesn’t cause any health-related issues. Staph bacteria can be problematic, however, if it manages to enter the body through breaks in the skin. Infections caused by staph can be especially troublesome if S. aureus manages to reach crucial areas of the body, such as the bloodstream, joints, heart and lungs.
Given this fact, the infections associated with S. aureus can vary significantly. A relatively minor infection might involve folliculitis. Folliculitis results in the appearance of red bumps or white-headed pimples around hair follicles. A more serious problem occurs when staph triggers the formation of boils on the skin.
Boils are never a pleasant sight, as they initially cause skin tissue to become red and tender. Eventually, a mixture of white blood cells, bacteria and proteins accumulates inside the boil. This substance is commonly referred to as pus. As the amount of pus increases, boils tend to become larger, and also take on a whitish color. When a boil ruptures, pus will usually seep out onto the skin, although blood or an amber-colored fluid might be released instead. According to the Mayo Clinic, boils are the most commonly diagnosed staph infection.
Some other types of staph infections are shown below:
Impetigo – Usually developing around the nose and mouth, impetigo is a rash consisting of large blisters. In addition to often being quite painful, impetigo rashes are also contagious.
Cellulitis – As with boils and impetigo, the affects of cellulitis are easily noticed on the surface of the skin. Individuals with this infection must typically contend with redness and swelling. Cellulitis might also cause ulcers to form. Taking hold in the skin’s deeper layers, symptoms of cellulitis usually appear on the legs and feet.
Staphylococcal scalded skin syndrome – As you might imagine, staphylococcal scalded skin syndrome (SSS) is a very serious illness. This type of infection causes a toxin to be released on the person’s skin, resulting in such distressing symptoms as fever, rash and blisters. Making SSS even more of a threat is that bursting blisters can erode the top layer of skin tissue. What is left behind in these damaged areas is skin that is both red and raw, similar to what happens when a person suffers a burn. The groups at biggest risk of contracting SSS are newborns and children under five years of age.
The Threat of MRSA
That brings us to MRSA. Unlike other types of staph infections, MRSA bacteria evolved to the point that it has developed immunity against several prominent antibiotics. For instance, medicines such as methicillin, oxacillin, amoxicillin, penicillin are no longer reliable treatments for MRSA infections.
Though it certainly makes for an imposing foe, MRSA is fortunately not very common. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note that MRSA is found in 2 out of every 100 people, or 2 percent of the overall population. Furthermore, this figure doesn’t mean that two percent of the US population has MRSA symptoms. Most of these individuals are not infected with MRSA, but simply have this bacteria present on or inside their body (this is known as “bacterial colonization”).
When MRSA does infect a person, the proceeding symptoms can vary depending on how far the MRSA spreads into the body. Like other forms of s. aureus, the presence of MRSA may cause boils, cellulitis and impetigo. Some people are stricken with abscesses, or accumulations of pus that develop between bodily tissues. An abscess may become so large and painful that it requires surgical treatment.
MRSA can be more than just a skin-deep problem. If MRSA bacteria infect internal organs, one could suffer from symptoms that require medical attention:
- Joint Pain
- Rashes covering most of the person’s skin
- Low Blood Pressure
- Shortness of breath
When it comes to treatment options, doctors frequently opt to drain the abscesses caused by MRSA bacteria. In some cases, an individual might be treated with antibiotics that are still effective against MRSA. A person stricken with a severe MRSA infection might be treated intravenously withvancomycin, an antibiotic that is frequently used when other medications fail to work.
A New Vaccine?
In late 2013, researchers announced the development of a possible vaccine against staph infections. A team from the University of Iowa (UI) developed this medication by extracting certain substances from S. aureus samples, including superantigens and cytolysins. It is believed that these two proteins that are largely to blame for the illnesses caused by staph bacteria.
The research team then assembled various combinations of these substances, and proceeded to test them on groups of rabbits. A total of 88 rabbits received some form of vaccination, and afterwards were infected with staph bacteria. This experiment proved to be overwhelmingly successful, with only two succumbing to the infusion of S. aureus organisms. The researchers also studied the effects of staph bacteria on a set of unvaccinated rabbits. In stark contrast to their vaccinated counterparts, only one of the 88 rabbits in this group was still living at the end of the study.
The study was published in the June 15, 2014 issue of the Journal of Infectious Diseases. UI professor and lead researcher Patrick Schlievert argued that the study could greatly reduce the incidence of staph infections, telling The Gazette newspaper that the study “suggests that vaccination against these toxins may provide protection against all strains of staph.” Schlievert was also hopeful that the Food and Drug Administration would approve testing on human subjects in the near future.