Flesh-eating bacteria cases, fatal pneumonia and life-threatening heart infections suddenly are popping up around the country, striking healthy people and stunning their doctors.
The cause? Staph, a bacteria better known for causing skin boils easily treated with standard antibiotic pills.
No more, say infectious disease experts, who increasingly are seeing these "super bugs" -- strains of Staphylococcus aureus unfazed by the entire penicillin family and other first-line drugs.
Until a few years ago, these drug-resistant infections were unheard of except in hospital patients, prison inmates and the chronically ill. Now, resistant strains are infecting healthy children, athletes and others with no connection to a hospital.
"This is a new bug," said John Bartlett, M.D., who chairs the committee on antibiotic resistance at the Infectious Diseases Society of America. "It's a different strain than in the hospital ... more dangerous than other staph.
"Primary-care physicians and ER doctors, they don't all know (about this) and should," he said.
Bartlett, a professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, treated three young Baltimore-area women this year who got pneumonia from this community-acquired resistant staph. All had to be put on breathing machines, and one died, he said.
The infections will be a hot topic at the society's annual meeting this week in Boston. The group has been warning that drug companies aren't developing enough new antibiotics to avert a crisis.
Among the case reports to be discussed:
Dan Jernigan, M.D., a CDC epidemiologist, said athletes, children and military recruits are at higher risk. They are more likely to get cuts and scrapes and share close quarters and items such as towels and soap. Another factor is overuse of antibiotics, which tends to kill weak bacteria and help hardier ones develop resistance.
"Clinicians will have to think differently about skin infections," Jernigan said. "We treat most skin infections without ever testing them."
There are no national statistics on these infections, but health authorities are debating requiring doctors to report them. CDC has reported on numerous infection clusters, including Colorado fencing club members, college football players in Pennsylvania and Los Angeles, and high school wrestlers in Indiana, and dozens of Pacific Islanders in Hawaii. Many patients were hospitalized, including most of the athletes. At least two outbreaks have occurred among Native Alaskans since 1996, with many cases linked to steam baths.
In New Jersey, infection clusters were reported in 2003 and earlier this year involving two high schools and members of one family.