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New York man dies after supergerm infection

staphylococcus aureus bacteria  
April 24, 1998
Web posted at: 10:11 p.m. EDT (0211 GMT)

NEW YORK (CNN) -- A supergerm that has proved resistant to one of the most potent antibiotics available may have claimed its first victim.

A man in his 70s died last month at a suburban New York hospital after becoming infected with a strain of staphylococcus aureus bacteria, or staph.

Because the man's family did not permit an autopsy, it's possible he died from his kidney ailment. But his body also had been invaded by the resistant germs -- and "it's very likely he died from that," said Kristine Smith, a spokeswoman for the state Health Department.

Hospitals have been on alert since last summer for the emergence of a deadly form of antibiotic-resistant staph. The most recent case was one of four known cases in the world in which staph proved resistant to vancomycin, an antibiotic known as "the silver bullet."

Many people have the germ, and it's usually harmless. But when it mutates into a strain impervious to some antibiotics, it can be dangerous, especially to patients in hospitals, where staph is the No. 1 cause of infections.

Drug cocktail treated patients in earlier cases

In the three other known cases, the patients all survived after being treated with a cocktail of other antibiotics. The first case was that of a child in Japan who became ill in 1996. Last year, another case was reported in New Jersey and a third in Michigan.


But the New York patient's case was different. He never received combination therapy because he died within 12 hours of admission to the hospital. Blood culture results that would identify the vancomycin-resistant strain of staphylococcus take 24 to 48 hours to grow. The patient didn't live that long.

"The organism was no longer treatable with vancomycin," said Dr. Harold Adel of Westchester County Health Commission. "It had developed resistance. And vancomycin was, in effect, the last-line effective drug for this treatment."

State Health Commissioner Barbara DeBuono said the man's death was an isolated case that posed no danger to the public. The victim's family, hospital workers and other patients were tested and none had contracted the deadly bug, she said.

No threat now, but medical community concerned

But still, there is some concern. For several years, doctors have been warning of the emergence of drug-resistant bacteria. The problem is attributed to overuse or misuse of antibiotics.

An experimental French drug called Synercid could prove to be an effective new antibiotic against the resistant bug.

In the meantime, many hospitals have restricted use of their most potent antibiotics, isolated their sickest patients and instructed staff members to wash their hands often.

"It's of interest and concern because it represents an instance in which an effective antibiotic has become ineffective in treating a common organism," Adel said.

People at greatest risk to the staph bacteria are those with weakened immune systems, including newborn babies, the elderly, and cancer and AIDS patients.

Even though the New York patient was at high risk and he never got a chance to get combination antibiotic therapy, health officials are taking no chances at further infections. Hospitals will continue to follow strict infection control procedures, and doctors are urged to limit their use of antibiotics to only those cases when they are absolutely necessary.

Correspondent Dr. Steve Salvatore and the Associated Press contributed to this report.


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