Deadly drug-resistant staph infections - rarely seen in patients a decade ago - have become the leading type of skin infections treated in emergency rooms, scientists reported yesterday.
The study in The New England Journal of Medicine was the first to demonstrate the extent to which drug-resistant Staphylococcus aureus has spread throughout the United States.
The bacterium accounted for 59 percent of skin infections in the study, researchers said. Local prevalence ranged from 15 percent in New York to 74 percent in Kansas City, Mo. In Los Angeles, drug-resistant staph accounted for 51 percent of skin infections, researchers said.
"The message for doctors is to recognize how prevalent these infections are," said the study's lead author, Dr. Gregory J. Moran of Olive View-UCLA Medical Center.
The drug-resistant strain was found to cause painful skin lesions that resembled infected spider bites.
It also can cause a deadly lung disease known as necrotizing pneumonia and toxic-shock syndrome, a type of blood poisoning that can be fatal.
Not long ago, doctors could confidently prescribe tried-and-true antibiotics for skin infections, but Moran said that was no longer the case.
At his hospital, "we assume the infection is resistant and treat it accordingly" with a different set of drugs, Moran said.
What triggered the spread of drug-resistant staph isn't known. Some years ago, researchers started finding infections in jail inmates, sexually active gay men and professional athletes. Then last year, infections were reported among the general population in Atlanta, Baltimore and Minnesota.
The study, conducted by researchers from UCLA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and several other institutions, looked at 422 patients treated for skin and soft-tissue infections during August 2004. The patients were seen in university-affiliated emergency rooms in 11 cities.