By R. Scott Belzer
LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — Saint Joseph London was featured in the Dec. 16 edition of USA Today due to the Methicillin-resistant Staphyloccocus aureus (MRSA) scare in the local area earlier this year.
Eric Allen, a 39 year-old London resident, fell victim to a pneumonia-induced coma brought on by MRSA in March, prompting doctors and CDC officials to go into “emergency mode.” MRSA went on to claim two other victims within the same month, with a total of six suspected victims eventually arising.
“They don’t even know for certain how I got this,” said Allen in an interview with USA Today. “Nobody knows how any of these people got this, and a little boy died from it. It really took a toll.”
The USA Today article has since stood as a warning sign for doctors nationwide. It points out how, in Kentucky, as in most states, hospitals are not required to report individual MRSA cases.
“We have more data on how many cows are in each county than we do on how many MRSA cases there are,” said Kevin Kavanagh, a physician who chairs Health Watch USA, a patient advocacy group. “It’s very hard to come up with (prevention strategies) if you don’t have solid data.”
The article went on to point out how the Center for Disease Control (CDC) only tracks “invasive” MRSA infections – infections where the bacteria has invaded the bloodstream and reaches internal organs. In other words, the CDC only tracks more serious and fatal infections.
This proves to be quite alarming, especially when there were approximately 460,000 hospitalizations involving MRSA diagnosis, 23,000 resulting in death. This means that the CDC excluded more than 375,000 MRSA infections that required hospital visits.
According to the USA Today investigation, the CDC doesn’t include “lesser” cases that were resolved with outpatient treatment. This figure could possibly be in the millions.
The article also brings to light the struggles faced by Saint Joseph’s Dr. Muhammad Iqbal and Cumberland Valley Regional Epidemiologist, Dr. Marion Pennington, who were on the front lines in March’s scare. When interviewed by The Sentinel-Echo Friday, Dr. Iqbal downplayed the overall seriousness of the infection.
“It’s a bug nobody talks about. But it’s so common – finding invasive cases is like looking for a needle in a haystack,” Iqbal said. “There’s a fine line in awareness to the point of panicking people.”
Iqbal said there are currently antibiotics that can treat MRSA, a fact the article in the USA Today failed to mention.
“Antibiotics exist that go against it,” Iqbal said. “What shocked us about the London strain is that it moved so violently and progressed so fast.”
The strain of MRSA that struck London in March has come to be known as the Panton-Valentine leukocidin (PVL) strain.
Ultimately, the USA Today article cites researchers calling for a general vaccine for staph, even while 30 percent of the public has non-threatening staph on their bodies and only two percent carry MRSA.
“It’s in the works,” Iqbal said. “But we don’t want to start pulling out the big guns quite yet.”
Other, more routine measures are also suggested. Experts repeatedly call for basic hygiene, not sharing personal items like razors or towels, and implementing cleaning and disinfection practices in public arenas.
For now, Iqbal and the staff at Saint Joseph London are keeping a sharp eye out for any signs of MRSA, but are letting it exist in the back of their minds. According to Iqbal, the last case of the PVL strain was back in April.
While hospitals are required to keep data on serious diseases, such as Malaria or Hepatitis-A, London residents should know PVL is being tracked locally. Pennington voluntarily tracks each MRSA case that arrives at the London hospital.