Chicago — Testing all new hospital patients for a dangerous staph "superbug" could help wipe out a germ that likely kills more Americans than AIDS, consumer advocates say and early evidence suggests.
Yet few U.S. hospitals do it, and many fight efforts to require it. Jeanine Thomas, who nearly died from the drug-resistant staph bug, says the reason is simple: "Doctors don't want to be told what to do."
The Chicago suburbanite's personal crusade led Illinois this year to become the first state to order testing of all high-risk hospital patients and isolation of those who carry the staph germ called MRSA.
Powerful doctor groups fought against it. The testing and isolation of patients would be too costly, they said. Many other germs plague hospitals that also require attention. Experts said a more proven approach would focus on better hand washing by hospital staff - a simple measure tough to enforce.
Yet Thomas prevailed. Similar measures passed this year in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. And Thomas' national crusade to make hospitals test for MRSA and report their infection rates gained steam last week after a Virginia teenager's death from the germ and a government report estimated it causes dangerous infections that sicken more than 90,000 Americans each year and kill nearly 19,000.
Suddenly the little-known germ with the cumbersome name, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, is getting lots of attention.
People in health care settings, like hospitals and nursing homes, are most at risk for MRSA infections. Doctors and nurses who treat staph-infected patients and then don't carefully wash up can spread the germ to other patients. Germ-contaminated medical devices used on people having dialysis or medical procedures also can spread staph. Older patients and blacks are most at risk, according to the recent report by government researchers.
MRSA, pronounced Muhr-suh, has been around for decades and in recent years has spread to schools, prisons and crowded public housing projects. Even healthy people can carry it on their skin. It may look like a pimple or spider bite that doesn't heal, but it can turn deadly if it enters the bloodstream or morphs into a flesh-eating wound.
Yet, many infection control experts oppose required testing for it in hospitals. Many note that MRSA is just one of dozens of risky germs that often infect people in hospitals - particularly those with weakened immune systems or open wounds.
But Lisa McGiffert doesn't buy it. The director of the Consumers Union's campaign to stop hospital infections calls that "an argument of distraction."
"Certainly there are other superbugs and they should be tackling those, too," McGiffert said. "To eradicate hospital-acquired infections is going to take a comprehensive effort" that should include testing hospital patients, she said.
About 1.7 million Americans each year develop infections from various germs while hospitalized, and almost 100,000 of them die, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. MRSA accounts for only about 10 percent of these infections. Other worrisome bugs include C-difficile (an intestinal infection), vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus (linked with intestinal, skin and blood infections), and drug-resistant Acinetobacter (which can cause pneumonia, skin and blood infections); none accounts for more than 10 percent of hospital infections.
MRSA infections have hogged attention, partly because they're on the rise. And, acknowledges the CDC's Dr. John Jernigan, "MRSA likely accounts for a disproportionate amount of illness and death" because of its strength and resistance to mainline antibiotics.
CDC recommendations for fighting drug-resistant bugs list MRSA testing as an option. However, the agency says it's unclear whether that works better than other measures. Those include judicious use of antibiotics, hand washing, and wearing gloves, gowns and other protective gear.
"We don't think (testing is) a silver bullet to that problem," Jernigan said.