Way back in 1928 when Scottish biologist, Alexander Fleming, discovered penicillin, the bacterium he used in his research was Staphylococcus aureus, known today simply as staph, one of the most ubiquitous causes of infection in the modern world.
When Fleming’s miracle drug was finally introduced during World War II (delayed because no one could figure out how to mass-produce and preserve it), it was used immediately against staph, especially to combat infection after surgery for battle wounds. But the bacteria mutated so quickly that by 1950, 40% of S. aureus found in hospitals were already resistant to penicillin. By 1960, the figure had shot up to 80%.
Today, this type of staphylococcus (there are at least 30 others, though most have little effect on humans) is the scourge of hospitals worldwide. In North America alone, more than a million patients suffer nosocomial (contracted in hospitals) infections from S. aureus every year, and an estimated 90,000 die of the infection or its side effects.
Recent tests in the UK found that only 2% of S. aureus bacteria now respond to penicillin treatment. Many new drugs have been developed, but as fast as they are introduced, the bacterium mutates, to the point where there may be dozens of strains of S. aureus. No one really knows.
Here in a nutshell is one of the central problems of western medicine. While antibiotics have successfully combated many different diseases and saved millions of lives, they can also set in motion a train of cause and effect that leads to worse outcomes in the long run.
Resistant strains of staph are now so numerous and difficult to combat, antibiotics are no longer routinely prescribed. This is a good thing, because antibiotics not only create “super bugs” – bacteria with vastly heightened powers of resistance – but also disable our immune system by attacking beneficial organisms in our bodies, as well as the bad ones.
There is no artificial substitute for a healthy immune system, sustained by healthy living. Consider this: while up to 30% of the population carry S. aureus, usually in the nose or on the skin, only about 2% of us will ever develop an infection. That’s the immune system at work. Of those who do suffer staph infections, the immune system is often compromised by surgery, drugs or some other illness.
The majority of these S. aureus outbreaks are minor skin infections, such as pimples, impetigo, boils and abscesses, ugly and often copious producers of highly infectious pus, but not in themselves serious. The bacteria can, however, be life-threatening.
Staph infections may produce any of three different types of toxins, which can in turn cause food poisoning, pneumonia, meningitis, endocarditis (infection of the heart valves), toxic shock syndrome or scalded-skin syndrome, a disease primarily of infants and children, endemic in some hospital nurseries.
The bacteria are spread by person-to-person contact (and from pets to humans, vets have discovered), but can be controlled simply by good hygiene, especially hand-washing. It should be said, though, that S. aureus is remarkably hardy, surviving in one test for nearly three months on a piece of polyester, the material commonly used for privacy curtains in hospitals. Alcohol, however, kills it on contact – without the risk of creating mutations.
Older people may remember when S. aureus was commonly called “golden staph”, a reference to the bright yellow colour of the bacterial clusters under a microscope. Aureus is Latin for gold.
If you suspect you have a staph outbreak, only laboratory analysis can determine the strain and whether it is treatable. Meantime, don’t scratch. Breaking through skin or mucous membrane is the surest route to introducing this organism into the body and setting off an infection.
©Dr. Ashely Gordon, 2008.