Flesh Eating Virus in Britain (the U.K.). Is there really such a thing as a new, deadly flesh-eating superbug that can be spread by coughing and sneezing? Should we worry? Can we prevent it?
Last week, British commuters were alarmed when a tabloid warned that coughing and sneezing on crowded trains and buses could spread a deadly “flesh-eating superbug.”
Reports claimed a dangerous, highly infectious, new form of community-acquired methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) had emerged—and the new strains of bacteria were “more virulent than the infamous hospital-acquired MRSA were “spreading across Britain.”
More than any bacterial infection, it was the news of the so-called super bugs that spread like wildfire across the United Kingdom. First breaking in The Metro on Feb. 2, it was quickly picked up by other tabloids.
Said to be “usually resistant” to several types of antibiotics, the new strain of bacteria was at the same time very virulent and highly contagious. And according to the reports, the super bacteria could “be transmitted through skin-to-skin contact and hugging as well as sneezing and coughing.”
These dangers of the “community- acquired superbugs” were supposedly raised by a new scientific study that examined the way they spread.
The bacteria was also reported to cause ghastly ailments. Some strains were supposed to cause “large boils on the skin,” and one strain, supposedly called USA300, led to “blood poisoning or a form of pneumonia that eats away at lung tissue.”
Tabloids quoted two researchers, Prof. Chris Williams, professor of molecular genetics at the University of Birmingham and Dr. Ruth Massey. Dr. Williams was reportedly quoted as saying: “It breaks down tissue. If it gets into your heart, bacteria can get into your bloodstream and take hold of different parts of your body. That could lead to death quite easily.”
Dr. Massey was even reported to have said that USA300 was “causing huge problems in America and is being reported here (in the United Kingdom) increasingly.” She even gave an exact number of cases—according to tabloids: 1,000 cases of community-acquired MRSA in England in the last year, of which 200 were USA300 strains.
‘Alarmist and overblown’. The reports, however, are hogwash.
First, there wasn’t any new community-acquired MRSA strain that emerged last week. Scientists and U.K.’s health authorities have known for many years about the existence of community-acquired MRSA.
Second, the community-acquired MRSA isn’t any more virulent than the hospital or healthcare-acquired MRSA. In fact, it’s the opposite. MRSA is harder to acquire in communities.
Third, there was no study being done to investigate new cases of the infection.
Yes, there was a new study on MRSA bacteria done by British and American scientist and published recently in the Journal of Infectious Diseases.
But the tabloid reports were, at best, a confused understanding of a lab-based study by the British and American scientists. At worse, they were deliberately twisted to attract more readers in a perverse but typically “tabloidal” attempt to boost ad revenue.