by Michelle Lang
Health region fears superbug will hit general population. The number of cases of a superbug sweeping through Calgary prisons and homeless shelters nearly doubled in 2007 and health officials fear the virulent bacteria could spread into the city's general population.
New Calgary Health Region statistics show the number of people who contracted methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus — a form of staph infection resistant to most antibiotics — grew to 1,020 last year. That represents a significant increase from 588 people who contracted the infection in 2006.
Medical officials say the superbug, which causes severe abscesses in the skin and can turn deadly, has struck marginalized populations in the city: homeless people, drug users and prisoners.
And the health region says it's possible cases could begin appearing in other parts of the community, leading its public health department to closely monitor the outbreak.
"It's hard to predict what might happen, but we are seeing increases from one year to the next," said Dr. Judy MacDonald, deputy medical officer of health at CHR.
"So far we haven't seen clusters in other (populations), which is good."
The MRSA superbug began appearing outside local hospitals in 2004, making Calgary the first place in Canada to experience an outbreak in the community. In many other Canadian cities, infections from the bacteria have occurred primarily in hospitals.
The superbug has gained an even stronger foothold in the United States, where the Journal of the American Medical Association estimated last fall that severe infections from the bacteria killed about 19,000 people in 2005, taking more lives than AIDS.
It can often only be treated with expensive, intravenous antibiotics.
The Calgary statistics coincide with news that federal health officials are developing a national strategy for all front line health workers to deal with the bacteria. The Public Health Agency of Canada will work with other organizations to develop training tools for medical workers, focusing on steps such as hand washing to decrease the incidence of MRSA in hospitals.
In Calgary, meanwhile, hospitals are introducing a new patient screening system. On several wards at the Foothills, Peter Lougheed and Rockyview hospitals, staff will soon begin testing all patients for MRSA.
"We have a list of targeted wards," said Dr. Tom Louie, director of infection control at the health region. "On the medical wards and long-term care wards, I think we can make a case for screening everyone."
Screening usually involves taking swabs of a patient's nose and identifies if the person is carrying MRSA, even when he or she shows no sign of infection.
This allows the hospital to take extra precautions, such as isolating the patient so the bacteria don't spread in the facility.
Alberta Health recently recommended that health centres screen high-risk patients — people who had been recently jailed or previously hospitalized — for the superbug when they're admitted to hospital.
But Louie said Calgary hospitals had tried the limited screening system and found it less effective than hoped.
But when they tried so-called "universal screening" in selected wards last year, they found nearly twice as many patients carrying MRSA. The practice now is being adopted.
"As our rates were rising over the past three or four years, we needed to do something else," Louie said.
Outside hospitals, staff at facilities such as the Calgary Remand Centre now check inmates for wounds and skin lesions that could indicate they're infected with the bacteria, said the health region's MacDonald.
In fact, the increased surveillance could explain part of the growth in MRSA cases in Calgary, she said.
The local health authority is talking with jails and homeless shelters about introducing special soaps.
But despite efforts to monitor and control the bacteria, it's clear the number of cases in Calgary is increasing.
"The strain, once it gets established, it tends to keep going," MacDonald said.
That's disturbing news for those who have battled the bug.
David Munson, a 31-year-old Airdrie man who says he contracted MRSA at Foothills Hospital after a 2006 hand surgery after an accident at work, hasn't been able to beat the infection.
In his case, the bacteria formed an abscess in his leg that physicians have repeatedly attempted to remove, without success.
"There's got to be something that can be done," said Munson, referring to news of the increased Calgary cases. "It's not a good sickness."