New England Journal editorial: MRSA, H1N1 parallels

There’s a very interesting piece in a recent New England Journal of Medicine (unfortunately, only the abstract is online) that draws parallels between MRSA and public expectations for pandemic flu. Written by Dr. Kent Sepkowitz, chief of infection control at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York and one of the authors of the “Medical Examiner” column at Slate, it’s an exploration of microbial sleight of hand: We were looking in one direction for a problem to develop, and — like Wile E. Coyote staring after the Road Runner but missing the Acme anvil — the problem came around and socked us in the back of the head.

In the case of flu, Sepkowitz writes, we concentrated on the threat of H5N1 avian influenza — the focus, until H1N1/swine flu arrived, of billions of dollars and years of effort in pandemic preparation — but were surprised by the sudden catastrophic emergence of seasonal flu strains resistant to oseltamivir (Tamiflu), one of the few antiviral drugs that can reduce illness and death from flu if taken early enough. In the case of MRSA, medicine focused on containing the spread of hospital MRSA and its rare transformation into VRSA, vancomycin-resistant staph — and mostly discounted, until far too late, the enormous threat of community MRSA strains:

The intensity of our concern and the frequency of the doomsday dispatches were appropriate. We were simply chasing the wrong microbe. It is community-acquired MRSA, not VRSA… that now occupies the center of the public health stage. And just about everything predicted for VRSA has come true for community-acquired MRSA. It’s everywhere; it’s deadly; it has changed the day-to-day management of skin infections and pneumonia in clinics, emergency rooms and intensive care units. It’s a true public health disaster. It’s just a different disaster from the one we were exercised about.

As we wrangle the new threat of H1N1, Sepkowitz warns that it is vital to remember how many millennia of practice microbes have in foiling our expectations:

We should marvel at the raw, restless power of microbes. They have the numbers — trillions and quadrillions and more that replicate wildly, inaccurately and disinterestedly. Nothing microbes do, whether under the duress imposed by antimicrobials or from some less evident pressure, should surprise us. It’s their world; we only live in it.

(Image courtesy Sansceo Design)


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