Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, MRSA for short, is an infection that you may have never heard of. But in 2011, this little-known condition affected more than 80,400 people, almost 61% more than contracted HIV.
Shockingly, over 60% of MRSA cases are spread in healthcare facilities. And according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), almost one-third of all patients who enter hospitals to be treated for the infection come from long-term care facilities. Clearly, nursing homes and assisted living facilities are breeding grounds for this virulent illness.
What Is MRSA?
Staphylococcus bacteria, a germ found on the skin and nose, causes what is frequently referred to as “Staph infection.” More often than not, Staph bacteria is benign, resulting in no problems but a mild rash. When the bacteria penetrates deep into the body, usually through open cuts or sores, it can cause severe damage. Spreading through blood, and infecting bones, joints and organs, Staph can end in life-threatening complications like Toxic Shock Syndrome. But again, these complications are rare.
Staph infections are treated simply, through the use of antibiotics. But one strain, MRSA, has evolved and become resistant to treatment.
After infection, symptoms begin quickly, first presenting as small red bumps. In the absence of treatment, these bumps can develop into excruciating abscesses, pus-filled sores that must be drained surgically. In severe cases, the bacteria can burrow beneath the skin, infecting bones, organs or the bloodstream.
MRSA is a significant cause of pneumonia, a lung infection that kills more than 10% of the elderly people who get it.
How Does The Disease Spread?
Staphylococcus bacteria is common; the CDC reports that “one in three people carry staph in their nose, usually without any illness.“
And while only 1 out of every 50 people carry the particular strain responsible for MRSA, it can be easily spread through physical contact. Hands become quickly contaminated through direct contact with carriers, and the bacteria spreads further.
Why Is It So Common In Nursing Homes?
1. MRSA relies on openings in the skin to infect the body. This is particularly problematic in elder care facilities, where bed sores and surgical wounds are common. Any invasive procedure, including IV tubing and artificial implants, can create a dangerous entry point for the bacteria.
2. Elderly nursing home residents generally live with weakened immune systems. Unable to stave off infection, their bodies succumb to the bacteria’s negative effects far more easily than that of a younger person.
3. Nursing homes can be crowded. Living in close proximity to others, especially when the environment is frequently left unsanitary, increases the risk of the disease’s spread.
Can MRSA Be Treated?
Yes, but first it must be recognized. Unfortunately, many cases of MRSA are diagnosed as normal Staph infection first. Others are misdiagnosed initially as spider bites. The primary treatment measure for either condition, antibiotics, will have little effect in fighting MRSA and often causes more severe complications:
- Treating MRSA with traditional antibiotics can actually help the bacteria. Overuse of antibiotics, like penicillin, is what created the virus in the first place. Using them again may promote more virulent strains.
- Using antibiotics to treat MRSA wastes time, and time is often all the bacteria needs to spread.
Doctors can properly diagnose the infection only by taking a sample of nasal secretions. In a lab, this material will be stored in a petri dish, along with special nutrients that promote the growth of bacteria. After testing the results, you’ll be able to know whether or not the bacteria is resistant to antibiotics.
Thankfully, MRSA is only resistant to the most regularly used antibiotics. Other types of antibacterial medications still work, although recent studies suggest that the bacteria is evolving beyond those as well.
In limited cases, the illness can be effectively treated without the use of drugs. Doctors may be able to drain abscesses, and the infection will clear of its own accord.
What Should Nursing Homes Do?
The CDC has outlined a number of guidelines to help nursing homes prevent the spread of MRSA within their facilities.
Many involve easy, routine hygienic practices. Cleaning surfaces with antibacterial disinfectants and regularly washing bed sheets are simple ways to reduce risks. Nursing home employees should carefully clean their hands before and after coming into contact with any patients, and wear gloves whenever possible.
Experts agree that infected patients should be isolated, or share rooms only with other residents who have also been infected.
But the CDC’s guidelines are just that: recommendations. They’re not laws, and failure to comply is not a violation of any legally-binding sanction.
Misdiagnosis Of MRSA
Misdiagnosis, on the other hand, may be cause for legal action. As we’ve seen, MRSA can be mistaken for other diseases. When improperly treated, a mild infection often becomes a major concern.
With the industry’s newly increased awareness, medical professionals should now actively screen for MRSA, by testing cultures for the presence of the deadly bacteria. If doctors fail to rule MRSA out as a possibility, and their misdiagnosis leads to the worsening of a patient’s health, loved ones may be able to file a medical malpractice lawsuit.