Certain antibiotic-resistant staph infections, called methicillin-resistant staph aureus (MRSA), that usually break out among patients that are hospitalized are increasingly originating in communities, according to two recent studies.

"These strains that are in the community now look like they arose there. They're not just spilling out from hospitals," says Dr. Henry Chambers, chief of infectious diseases at San Francisco General Hospital.

The First Study

To get a better grasp on the scope of the problem, researchers of the first study analyzed medical records and interviewed people in Baltimore, Atlanta and Minnesota who had developed staph infections outside of a hospital setting.

"The main hypothesis we wanted to test was whether MRSA emerged in the community independently or whether it had leaked out of the health-care system," says Dr. Scott Fridkin, lead author of the study and a medical epidemiologist at the National Center for Infectious Diseases, a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta.

The study found that "8% to 20% of all MRSA in the three communities was community-associated and not hospital-associated," Fridkin reports.

The Second Study

The second study looked at necrotizing fasciitis or "flesh-eating disease," a life-threatening condition

Although it is not usually caused by MRSA, experts recently have noted an increase in the number of cases of flesh-eating disease that are caused by this infection.

For this study, the researchers looked at 15 months of medical records for 843 patients who had MRSA.

Fourteen patients had been in the community when their infections developed. Although none died, all had serious complications and required hospital stays.

What Should You Do?

"Whenever you have a wound site, abrasion, cut or lesion on the skin, use an antiseptic as well as a bandage to treat it," advises Dr. Philip Tierno director of clinical microbiology and immunology at New York University Medical Center and author of The Secret Life of Germs and Protect Yourself Against Bioterrorism. "Don't leave it be. You could be setting the stage for a rapidly progressive infection."

Also, handwashing is critical, especially if you are engaged in a contact sport such as football or in any activities that involve being in close quarters with others.

"When water is not available, alcohol gels can be beneficial," Tierno says. "An effective wash is about a teaspoon. And keep it on while you sing 'Happy Birthday twice."

Finally, avoid sharing any personal items including sports equipment. And, if you do develop an infection, see your doctor immediately.

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