Being sensible about staph

October 19, 2007

There are several things to keep in mind when sorting through recent information about staph infections. Among the most important is the distinction between the relatively common varieties of staph that many of us encounter every day - and are generally not harmful - and the more invasive types that can be more dangerous and are more prevalent than previously realized, including in Baltimore, as documented in a recent report in The Journal of the American Medical Association.

The report that invasive staph infections may cause as many as 19,000 deaths a year nationwide and that they are found increasingly in communities as well as in hospitals and other health care settings is certainly troubling. But it's important not to panic or overreact.

This is a problem that requires sensible collaboration among government agencies, health care providers and communities as well as more widespread public education. It's also a problem that is best dealt with through forceful guidelines that can be quickly adapted as antibiotic-resistant bacteria evolve, rather than through legislative rules. To that end, state health officials are expected within the next three months to announce regulations requiring hospitals to report on and set standards for a broader range of infections than they do now. In addition, hospitals are looking at targeted testing of certain patients who are more likely to catch or spread infections, such as those in intensive care and emergency rooms, as well as patients coming from nursing homes or undergoing chemotherapy.

State Sen. Lisa A. Gladden of Baltimore is again pushing a bill that would require such testing, and while the impulse is understandable, hospital officials are right to resist legislative requirements in an area that is quickly changing.

Whether in hospitals or in the community, the findings in the JAMA article underscore the importance of a broad-based public education campaign to combat staph infections. That means emphasizing the need for all of us to wash our hands thoroughly, to treat cuts and scrapes promptly and to keep areas where a lot of people congregate clean. Good hygiene, on a small and large scale, will go a long way toward containing the problem.

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