Casualties in a Germ War
Four children die from resistant bug
The deaths of four children from a common bacterial infection, made public last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is "a step backward in the battle against antibiotic resistance," says Timothy Naimi, a CDC epidemiologist.
The children, from Minnesota and North Dakota, died in the past two years from infections caused by a resistant strain of the common staph bacterium. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus is "no stranger," says Joshua Lederberg, a Rockefeller University infectious disease expert, but infection typically occurs in hospitals and nursing homes or among intravenous drug users, not healthy children. The youngsters' deaths suggest the bug may be widespread among the public, where physicians are less prepared to deal with it.
"In most cases, people infected with the resistant strain can be treated with common antibiotics," says Naimi; the resistant bug is no more vicious than normal staph. The danger arises if there is a delay in administering the appropriate antibiotic, as in these cases, in which doctors determined too late that the strain was resistant. But in the wake of the deaths, Lederberg fears doctors may reach more often for the powerhouse vancomycin, considered the antibiotic of last resort: "Every time you use an antibiotic, you hasten the day it will no longer be effective."
This story appears in the August 30, 1999 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.