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As if the recent resurgence of bedbugs wasnt bad enough, Canadian researchers have found some of the little blood-sucking critters carrying methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, the potentially deadly superbug known as MRSA. Added to that, the researchers also found bedbugs with vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus faecium (VRE), another potentially deadly antibiotic-resistant bacteria. But to make matters worse locally, a recent survey by a national pest-control company has found that Chicago is the fifth-most bedbug-infested city in the United States.
"Its an intriguing finding, especially since were having an epidemic of bed bugs and an epidemic of multidrug-resistant organisms such as MRSA and VRE," says Dr. Jorge Parada, director of the infection prevention program at Loyola University Health System (LUHS). "But what remains to be proven is that bedbugs actually are implicated in the transmission of MRSA or VRE."
Most MRSA infections occur in hospitals and in other healthcare settings but the number of community-associated cases has risen dramatically in the United States over the past decade. Currently, between 5 percent to 10 percent of people are infected, and it is not known when that number will plateau. Some of the infections can be life-threatening.
The researchers discovered MRSA on bedbugs taken from three hospitalized patients who were residents of a lower-income area where bedbugs and MRSA are each on the rise. The researchers were exploring whether there was a connection between the two.
"These things overlap. MRSA and bedbugs both tend to be where there is more crowding and more people in lower socioeconomic groups," Parada says. "Thats also true for prison and homeless shelters. It raises a real concern that this might be an additional factor in the spread of MRSA in those areas. More studies are needed."
Though the MRSA strain the researchers found was of the community-associated variety, they were unable to determine if the bacteria were only living on the bugs or were growing inside of them.
"Another important concern is the additional health risk from bedbugs to people who are colonized by MRSA," Parada says. "There are many people who are colonized, meaning they carry MRSA on their body but arent infected. However, with a bedbug bite and the itching it provokes its possible that scratching could cause a break in the skin and provide an entry point for MRSA to enter and cause an infection."
Enterococcus is a common bacterium found in the intestines of all people. Luckily the resistant strain, VRE, is usually not aggressive and rarely causes illness in healthy people. Like MRSA, people who carry the organism with no signs of illness are considered colonized. Although in special circumstances VRE can be a devastating and difficult to treat illness, it is not any more likely to cause illness than the normal strain of the bacteria and most cases can be treated with other antibiotics.
Avoiding unnecessary antibiotic use and practicing good personal hygiene is the key to avoiding contracting MRSA, VRE and many other infectious diseases, Parada says. That includes keeping cuts and abrasions covered with a clean bandage and not sharing personal items such as towels, clothing, swimwear combs, soap, shampoo or shaving gear with anyone else.
"Washing your hands a number of times a day is the best defense we have against many infections," Parada adds. "That simple act trumps most everything else that you can do."