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US Health Officials Say Drug-Resistant Infections Are Growing Problem

A top U.S. health official says the spread of antibiotic-resistant staph infections in community settings is a growing problem in the United States and around the world, but officials say they can be prevented. VOA's Alex Villarreal reports from Washington.

Medical researchers say methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA killed more than 18,000 people in the United States in 2005, more people than the AIDS virus.

Most MRSA infections are contracted in hospitals but doctors are now seeing a growing number of people infected by the drug resistant disease in community settings where people are in close contact, such as schools. MRSA, which can enter the body through cuts or wounds, is blamed for the deaths of at least two young students in the past month.

Testifying before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Wednesday, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Julie Gerberding called the bacteria a "bad bug," but said simple steps can prevent infection.

"We have to get back to basics. As you said Mr. Chairman, in your opening statement. It's hand hygiene, it's not sharing personal materials that could be contaminated with someone's staph. It's taking care of wounds and keeping them covered," she said.

The Centers for Disease Control says about a third of Americans are carriers of staph bacteria at any given time, but only one percent carry MRSA.

Gerberding says evidence suggests infection rates in hospitals are decreasing. But with the increase in non-hospital related infections, MRSA has generated widespread concern.

Last month, a 17-year-old high school student in the eastern U.S. state of Virginia died of a MRSA infection. His death prompted officials to close 21 schools in the area for cleaning to keep the illness from spreading.

Gerberding said the CDC is working to get information to schools and other high-risk environments, but more needs to be done to ensure prevention. "So this is an opportunity for us to have a really broad campaign around preventing infections in schools and in homes and MRSA is a good hook for getting that message across," she said.

Although MRSA does not respond to penicillin and related antibiotics it can be treated with other drugs.