MRSA Rate in Kids Skyrockets—Here's How to Protect Your Family

Report: Skin and soft-tissue infections—particularly MRSA, which can move into the bones and lungs—are affecting children at unprecedented rates.

May 25, 2010

Make sure thorough handwashing becomes standard procedure in your family.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—MRSA, a potentially severe drug-resistant bacterium, used to lurk in hospital settings, and it mostly infected patients. However, in recent years more and more people are being sickened by a slightly different community strain, found in dust and even on our own bodies. And children are among the most hard-hit by the infection, which can spread from the skin and into the lungs and even bone. A new study published online this month in the journal Pediatrics has found that the number of MRSA cases in children has skyrocketed in the last decade. "This study shows how rapidly it's becoming a problem and taking us by surprise because we don't have good surveillance systems," says Maryn McKenna, author of Superbug: The Fatal Menace of MRSA (Free Press, 2010).


THE DETAILS: Researchers looked at a database of children's hospitals to figure out the rate of occurrence of Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA and the other form of the bacterium that is still susceptible to methicilin drugs) infections. The number of MRSA cases increased tenfold over the 10-year period, while the number of other cases dropped. Researchers are concerned with the treatments doctors are using because these may help promote the bacterium's ability to resist other drugs, too.

WHAT IT MEANS: MRSA is all around us. Thanks to wind blowing it off of manure lagoon pits on industrial farms, among other sources, it's in been found in dust that we could track into our houses, and in groundwater, ocean water, and beach sand. And McKenna says that about 30 percent of us carry the germ on our bodies. Researchers don't yet know why some people live healthy lives despite carrying MRSA, while others get sick, sometimes developing spider-bite-like boils and even bone infections. And while McKenna says crowded conditions (as in our prisons) make spreading MRSA easier, and contact sports also seem to cause a spike in cases, so it's best for everyone to make long- and short-term efforts to lower the risk of contracting MRSA.

Here's how to reduce your risk of being infected:

• Pretend it's always flu season. We preach to our families the importance of washing our hands during flu season, but it's best to make this a year-round practice. That's because regular soap and water and the friction of proper hand washing actually break the germs apart and help them slide off your skin. (Do NOT use antibacterial soaps containing chemicals like triclosan—they can actually make the MRSA problem worse.) If your children play sports, urge them to shower after practice or a game, and wash their uniforms and equipment as soon as possible after every use. (As with soaps, avoid detergents, clothing, and other products advertised as "antimicrobial" or "germ-resistant.")

• Be careful with antibiotic medicines. It's become less common, but sometimes doctors give in to persistent parents' or patients' pleas for antibiotics, even when they're not needed. In which case the antibiotics give MRSA and other germs an opportunity to build resistance to the medication. If you feel that you or your sick child needs antibiotic treatment, have a thoughtful conversation with your physician so you're clear on whether antibiotics will help the situation, or if it's better to hold off.

• Support drug-free meat and dairy. Some people complain that organic food is too expensive, but they're not looking at the big picture. "Cheap" meat and dairy produced in factory farms could not exist without overusing antibiotics to keep the animals alive in filthy conditions. But all of this medicating creates the perfect environment for drug-resistant MRSA to flourish. And these infections are not cheap to treat, sometimes costing tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills. Or in worst-case scenarios, a person's life. Other foodborne illnesses related to industrial agriculture cost the U.S. $150 billion a year, so it's a good idea to get into the habit of buying from local organic suppliers when things are in season and most economical, buying in bulk, and also preserving.