SUPERBUG: The Fatal Menace of MRSA

2013 June Roth Memorial Book Award, American Society of Journalists and Authors
2011 Science in Society Award, National Association of Science Writers

Lurking in our homes, hospitals, schools, and farms is a terrifying pathogen that has been evolving faster than the medical community can track it or drug developers can create antibiotics to quell it. The pathogen is MRSA — methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus — and SUPERBUG is the first book to tell its intricate, threatening story in full.

Doctors long thought that MRSA was confined to healthcare institutions, infecting almost exclusively those who were already ill, immune-compromised or old, and flaring up only occasionally in the outside world. But through remarkable reporting that covers 50 years of medicine, microbiology and tragedy, acclaimed science journalist Maryn McKenna reveals the hidden history of MRSA’s relentless advance across the planet: overwhelming hospitals, tearing open families, infiltrating agriculture and moving inexorably into the food chain.

Drawing on hundreds of interviews and more than 1,000 scientific publications dating back to the 1950s, McKenna traces the resistant bug’s stealthy path through the decades, from an accident victim in a British hospital to a cluster of healthy children made desperately ill in the American Midwest and to a stubborn case of bacterial carriage in a Dutch farmer’s child that reveals a chain of transmission stretching across borders, species and oceans.

With the sensitivity of a novelist and the skill of a disease detective, she portrays the emotional and financial devastation endured over years by victims of hospital MRSA, and the shock and grief of parents whose healthy children were felled in hours by an undetected community strain. She takes readers into medical centers where frustrated physicians are forced to discard drug after drug, and into labs where researchers struggle for the molecular secrets that will allow new drugs to work — for a while. She uncovers the unheard warnings that predicted the current crisis, and she indicts the social and political neglect that allowed it to occur: misplaced government spending, inadequate public health surveillance, misguided agricultural practices and vast overuse of the few precious drugs we have left. And in the very newest research findings, she uncovers some hope, some tools for self-defense — and almost no margin for error.

In SUPERBUG, McKenna demonstrates that MRSA is not one patient’s misfortune or one family’s tragedy. It is a global emergency of successive epidemics in hospitals, communities, and farms, and successive failures in governments, medicine and the marketplace. It touches almost every aspect of modern life. It is, as one weary researcher tells her, “the biggest thing since AIDS.”


“Maryn McKenna tracks the harrowing biography of MRSA with all the skills of a first-rate investigative journalist. Superbug reads like a thriller and is presented in a nuanced and eloquent prose that is as infectious as the microbe it details.”
- Howard Markel, M.D., Ph.D., George E. Wantz Distinguished Professor of the History of Medicine, The University of Michigan; author of When Germs Travel

“Like a modern-day Rachel Carson, Maryn McKenna sounds a powerful alarm about the insurgency of a deadly infection lurking in our schools, our gyms and even our food.  Antibiotics are losing their life-saving powers because of our injudicious use that has helped spawn these increasingly invincible pathogens.  By connecting the dots, Superbug may give us the early warning we need to prevent an uncontrollable epidemic.”
- Shelley A. Hearne, Dr. PH, Managing Director, Pew Health Group, The Pew Charitable Trusts

“As compelling as a detective novel, Superbug  reveals the inextricable links between human and animal health and the disastrous consequences for human health of using antibiotics to promote the growth of farm animals. McKenna has written a devastating critique of current systems of animal agriculture, health care, and drug development, as well as the politics of research.”
- Marion Nestle, Professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University, and author of Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety