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The 'Superbug' Scare

updated 11/05/2007 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/05/2007 01:00AM

The reports are scary: A drug-resistant microbe, apparently picked up in schools, killed three children in a two-week period and sent dozens more in 16 states to the hospital. MRSA—methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus—lives harmlessly in the noses and on the skin of millions of people, but can cause serious harm if it enters the body through a cut and reaches the bloodstream, attacking bones and tissue. In Richmond, Ind., a quarter of the town's 1,900 high schoolers stayed home Oct. 18 after a football player came down with a case. Says school superintendent Allen Bourff: "The last time I saw a reaction like this was [two decades ago] when we were dealing with the new topic of AIDS."

A new Centers for Disease Control study confirms that MRSA—which starts as a red bump resembling a bug bite and within days turns into an angry sore—is something to take seriously. It now accounts for 94,000 serious infections a year (mostly among the elderly and already hospitalized), with nearly 19,000 deaths annually, and could overtake AIDS as a killer in the U.S. Even experts are surprised by the rise in infections, linked in part to overuse of antibiotics. Heavy media coverage of MRSA in schools highlights a steady increase of cases in a setting where parents least expect it. In fact, schools, where children (some with poor hygiene) share desks, books and gym lockers, are a logical breeding ground, says Dr. John Bradley of Children's Hospital and Health Center in San Diego. "If you're sharing towels and jerseys, you can be sure the staph will spread," he says.

Jackie Vann, an eighth grader at Tampa Preparatory School, is a case in point: She spent four days in the hospital, with three surgeries, before doctors could tame MRSA that invaded through a cut on her leg. "My daughter was a beautiful, healthy, active 14-year-old, and then, wham! she was down," says her mom, Janelle, who realizes she is among the lucky ones. "It could have been a lot worse."

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