There's good news for a change about a bad bug called MRSA.
Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus isn't fazed by many common antibiotics. Each year infections with the germ sicken more than 90,000 Americans and kill 19,000.
But the rates of MRSA infections in hospitals have come down by a whopping 28 percent in 9 U.S. cities over four years, a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds. The results were just published online by JAMA.
How come? Well, the authors aren't exactly sure. "Although the reasons for the observed decrease in incidence of invasive health care–associated MRSA infections is not known," they write, "a number of factors might have contributed, including the dissemination of MRSA prevention practices in many U.S. hospitals."
At Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Dr. Sharon Wright sets a good example by smearing her hands with alcohol gel from a dispenser in the hospital.
Wright, who's in charge of controlling infections there, notes a sign on the dispenser that reads, "Push to Protect." That's something extra "that we put up in the last year," she says. "They're colorful, have an imprint of a hand," and draw attention to the dispensers, she says.
Less than three years ago, records showed that staffers at this Harvard teaching hospital didn't wash their hands more than about half the time, despite cajoling. But Wright says things have changed, with the average now at 90 percent in the intensive care units. Now that's the standard for the regular wards, too.
One of the study authors, Dr. Alexander Kallen of the CDC tells NPR the findings are very encouraging. Among other findings, infections also went down significantly among people in the community who got sick after they had some contact with some health care facility.
There is other evidence showing MRSA's on the run. An unpublished study shows MRSA infections have plummeted in all Veterans Affairs hospitals. All incoming VA patients get tested to see if they're carrying the germ. If they have it, they're isolated and treated with antibiotics.
Dr. Daniel Diekema of the University of Iowa was pleasantly surprised by the new numbers. But he says it doesn't the job is done. "Even a 28 percent reduction means we have a long way to go," he says.
These days there are lots of other bacteria to worry about, too. In fact, Diekema says 90 percent of hospital infections are caused by other bacteria, with names like C-difficile, acinetobacter and pseudomonas.
"MRSA is not the only bad bug out there," he says. "It's just the most famous."