MRSA colonization – the long-term risk

One of the ongoing puzzles of MRSA’s behavior is the significance of colonization, that situation of MRSA living on the skin — or in the nostrils or other locations close to the body’s external surface — without causing illness. It’s not known how frequently MRSA colonization occurs, for one thing: The long-standing estimate of 1% of the population has been challenged by a number of recent studies.

Another persistent question has been whether the risk of illness and death changes as colonization continues. It has been established that up to one-third of newly colonized carriers will become seriously ill within a year of their acquiring the bug (Huang, SS. et al., Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America Annual Meeting 2006, abstract 157 – not online that I can find)— but what happens beyond that? Does the risk of illness persist or decrease?

In Clinical Infectious Diseases, the same team that defined the risks of recent colonization report that there are significant risks to long-term carriage as well: 27% of invasive illness in the second year and 16% thereafter, based on a review of 281 patients who were followed for at least one and up to four years at Brigham & Women’s Hospital, a Harvard Medical School teaching hospital. These patients become very ill, and in addition use a significant amount of health-care resources:

At our hospital, there are 2–3 times as many hospital admissions involving patients previously known to harbor MRSA than there are hospital admissions of individuals who are newly detected as MRSA carriers each year.

What is the precipitating event that tips MRSA carriage over into MRSA illness? It may be health care. In other words, the long-term carriers do not become ill with MRSA disease and then come to the hospital. Instead, they come to the hospital for some other reason, and the surgery, IV placement, dialysis etc. they receive allows their MRSA strain to slip past the protective barrier of their skin and begin an invasive infection.

We submit that these high risks of MRSA infection among culture-positive prevalent carriers are not only preferentially detected because of hospitalization but may, in fact, be incurred because of the device-related, wound-related, and immunologic declines associated with a current illness.

This raises the question of whether any admitted patient found to be colonized should undergo the routine known as decolonization before any other procedures are performed — and whether institutions and insurance companies will be open to the additional hospital days and drug costs that will represent.

The cite is: Datta, R. and Huang, SS. Risk of Infection and Death due to Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus in Long-Term Carriers. Clinical Infectious Diseases. 2008 47:176-81.

Maryn

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