MONDAY, June 25, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- As many as 1.2 million U.S. hospital patients may be infected each year with a virulent staph infection that's resistant to antibiotics -- a rate almost 10 times greater than previous estimates, a new study finds.
The research, conducted by the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology, also found that as many as 119,000 hospital patients each year may die from the tough-to-treat strain of bacterium, called methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). The germ is spread by touch and can lead to dangerous skin infections, blood infections and pneumonia.
"This is a wakeup call that hospital administrators should understand the importance of this problem," said report author Dr. William Jarvis, an epidemiologist and president of the consulting firm, Jason and Jarvis Associates.
The rate of MRSA was higher than previously been estimated, Jarvis said. "Not only did we find MRSA in all states in all facilities, but 66 percent of it was on the medical service, which runs counter to previous beliefs that most MRSA was in intensive care units," he added.
One expert agreed that more needs to be done to fight this looming threat.
"In the early years of the 21st century, we are seeing the value of antibiotics decline as more and more germs become resistant to them," said Dr. David Katz, the director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine. "Methicillin resistant Staph aureus is one important example of this trend," he said.
The findings were based on surveys sent to 10,000 nurses, doctors, and other infection-control practitioners and included data on almost 8,000 infected patients from every state. More than 1,200 health care facilities -- 21 percent of the nation's total -- were included in the survey.
The researchers found that 46.3 of every 1,000 patients had active MRSA, which is eight to 11 times higher that previously estimated.
The report, the National Prevalence Study of Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) in U.S. Healthcare Facilities, was released Monday.
In contrast, one 2005 study, by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, estimated the MRSA infection rate at about 3.9 per 1,000 patients.
"Patients need to be aware of their risk of infection," said Kathy Warye, chief executive officer of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology, which sponsored the study.
"If they have any underlying disease, such as diabetes or a heart condition, and it is likely they will be going into a health care facility, they should speak with their physician about the risks they may be encountering," Warye said.
In addition, patients need to be assertive in making sure that the staff follows proper infection-control procedures, Warye said.
Jarvis said that basic steps can be taken to curb the rising rate of infection.
First, patients who are most at risk for MRSA need to be identified and tested, he said. Patients who are infected need to be placed in isolation. In addition, health care workers need to follow proper procedures to prevent the spread of MRSA, including washing their hands and disinfecting the environment around the patient.
"Indiscriminate use of antibiotics in both hospitalized and outpatients is part of this problem," Katz added. "So is failure by patients to complete courses of antibiotics as prescribed. And perhaps an even greater influence is the widespread use of antibiotics in feed animals," which also creates resistant strains, he said.
"Having advanced medicine with the introduction of antibiotics, we cannot let it regress by allowing the drugs to become useless. Policies to curtail the spread of resistant germs are urgently needed," Katz said.
For more information on MRSA, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.