Watch CBS News

MRSA: Fighting The Superbug

It wasn't that long ago that if your child got a staph infection, it was knocked out with a couple of doses of penicillin. Now, penicillin may not work because there's a form of staph called "MRSA" that has mutated and become resistant to most antibiotics.

As correspondent Lesley Stahl reports, it's a superbug that used to strike exclusively hospital and nursing home patients. Three years ago, 60 Minutes reported on a then-relatively new community-based MRSA that attacks perfectly healthy people who had not set foot in a hospital.

That's what we're seeing more and more of. New government data estimate that about 2,000 people are dying of community-based MRSA every year. But with the deaths of five school children this year, parents are understandably frantic and want to know what causes it, and how to protect against it. Problem is: there aren't many answers.

Mt. Lebanon High School in Pennsylvania has been hit hard: 13 members of its football team, the Blue Devils, came down with MRSA infections this year.

Alex Birks and Glenn Isralsky, tight ends on the varsity squad, say the school was spooked.

"I was a little scared. The guy in the locker next to me had it -- a few down. So, I mean, I was takin' my stuff home every night, washin' it, takin' showers all the time," Glenn tells Stahl. "I didn't want to get it. I actually had it sophomore year and I did not want to get it again. So."

"I didn't have a bad case of it. But, I had it," he says.

The first sign was on his elbow after a game in which he'd cut himself on the school's AstroTurf field. "It starts, it looks nothing more than a pimple. And in a day or two, it can become a huge growth on your skin," Glenn explains.

When diagnosed at this stage, before it gets into the bloodstream, MRSA is usually mild, and easily treated with general-purpose antibiotics, like Bactrim. And kids are told to bandage the sore.

Alex says his parents do look over him. "I'll be sittin' at dinner and my dad will just look up as my mom looks over and says, 'What is that? Lift up your arm.' You know?" he explains.

Both Glenn and Alex admit they're pretty neurotic about MRSA.

The high school brought in Dr. Bruce Dixon, director of the public health department for Allegheny County, to calm the waters.

Why does he think it's hitting young athletes?

"In contact sports people get abraded. They get dragged across a surface. They get banged up," Dr. Dixon explains. "They get cut. They get abrasions."

"And then you touch another athlete," Stahl remarks.

"They touch somebody else. They touch an article of personal hygiene, a towel or something else that somebody else has used. And they get infected," Dixon explains.

Players from four NFL teams have also been infected. But MRSA is not limited to athletes. It tends to strike people who are in close physical contact, like children in day care centers, prisoners in jails, and recently seven New York City firefighters.

"Everyone agrees that this an epidemic. And not only is it an epidemic. But, it's an epidemic of our times. It's here in huge numbers," says Dr. Robert Daum, an infectious disease pediatrician at the University of Chicago Medical Center.

When 60 Minutes first met Dr. Daum three years ago, community-based MRSA was just beginning to show up. He was one of the first doctors to spot it in his young patients, kids with pneumonia and bone infections, who were dying because drugs that had worked no longer did.

"They would get an antibiotic that belonged to the penicillin group of antibiotics. We can't do that anymore. We've abandoned that approach," Daum explained.

Daum told Stahl that treatment approach was totally abandoned, as he already knew it wasn't going to work.

Back in 2004, few doctors had heard of community-based MRSA. That's when 13-year-old Nicholas Johnson of Stafford, Texas, got a football injury. His parents, Janet and Dale, took him to the pediatrician.

"They diagnosed it at that time as a bad shoulder sprain," Nicholas' dad remembered.

Asked what they gave him for that, the teen's mom told Stahl, "Well, they just said to put his arm in a sling and take ibuprofen for pain."

That was on a Thursday. By Friday night, the Johnsons were in the emergency room at Texas Children's Hospital. Nicholas' temperature had spiked to 104.6.

"They gave us some antibiotics and some pain pills. So we took him home. I thought, 'Well, in a couple of days the antibiotics will start working and he'll start feeling better,'" his mom recalled.

But his elbows and knees swelled up as the infection spread, and the Johnsons rushed Nicholas back to the hospital. "He was in respiratory failure. And they needed to put him on a ventilator," his mom recalled.

"You must have just been terrified, to say the least," Stahl asks.

"To say the least," his father remembered. "Actually, at one time, we were told that we needed to get family around, because he just might not make it."

But Nicholas did make it. After three operations and an intravenous antibiotic, Nicholas fought off the MRSA infection. The hospital report says "it's a miracle he survived."

Asked if he's physically right back to where he was, Nicholas told Stahl, "My running's not as good as it used to be."

He also lost all the hearing in his left ear, but otherwise he's in great shape and loves to show off his scars.

The antibiotic that saved Nicholas was Vancomycin, used as the drug of last resort in severe MRSA infections. To explain, Dr. Daum showed Stahl petri dishes with different strains of bacteria.

Around the disks of bacteria, Daum pointed out a cleared zone, where the bacteria had died off. Those bugs were susceptible to many antibiotics.

But another petri dish contained MRSA. "Here you can see there's a very different result. There's no circles around these antibiotic disks," Daum pointed out. "Except for one. And this is Vancomycin."

"Oh. The last resort?" Stahl asked.

"So this strain is resistant to everything except the antibiotic of last resort," he explained.

But now today, that drug of "last resort" is being used more and more, and as a result MRSA is beginning to develop resistance to Vancomycin. When Dr. Dixon met with parents in Pennsylvania, the subject of antibiotics came up.

"I understand that one parent wanted you to put all the kids on an antibiotic, Bactrim, as a preventative," Stahl remarks.

"Very bad idea. Part of the reason we have this is the inadvertent and inappropriate use of antibiotics. We've given antibiotics for whatever ails you in this country. If you have a cold that's due to a virus, for what antibiotics have not effect whatsoever, people want antibiotics. The bacteria aren't dumb. They mutate; they change their nature enough that they become resistant to these things," Dixon explains.

Worried parents around the country are meeting with local school and health officials, looking for ways to protect their children. And families in Mt. Lebanon wanted to know where the MRSA was coming from.

"What were some of the myths that the parents came to you with?" Stahl asks.

"Perhaps the biggest one is that they thought that the field was contaminated. There were people that wanted the field replaced. There were people who wanted the field somehow sterilized," Dixon explains.

To respond to the parents, Dixon had the field tested twice, taking samples of the AstroTurf near the goal line right after a big game.

Dixon says a few bacteria were found, but no MRSA "whatsoever."

"What you can say from your test is, I'm asking, actually, is that MRSA staph does not live in AstroTurf?" Stahl asks.

"We can say unequivocally that MRSA staph does not live in AstroTurf," Dixon says.

But evidence like that hasn't stopped parents in dozens of school districts from demanding that schools be shut down, classrooms sterilized, and rooms fumigated.

"I'm concerned that we have schools that are spending inordinate amounts of money trying to sterilize the school. As soon as the students and the faculty return, the school is no longer sterile," Dixon explains.

"We know of a school in Virginia where the parents asked that the school be disinfected because they had a case of MRSA," Stahl remarks. "Then every time they had another case, they wanted the school disinfected again. And they keep doing that. You seem to be saying that doesn't do any good."

"Well I think the proof is exactly what's happened in Virginia. If they keep getting cases, and they keep disinfecting the school, it appears there's a disconnect. It doesn't work," Dixon says.

And yet Mt. Lebanon has been disinfecting team locker rooms and the field house once a day. Despite that, MRSA keeps coming back. Dr. Dixon says it isn't spread by touching things, but by touching one another.

"It's the kids themselves. It's not any inanimate thing that they're touching," Dixon says. "It's not the field. It's not the cafeteria. It's people."

"One person touches another person," he says.

And so the football team has new rules about personal hygiene. Stahl asked Alex Birks what it was like before.

"Well, we would have towels hung up here. We'd have a whole bunch of shoes. We'd have the pants and the girdles and everything else that you would use on a daily basis. Maybe wash it every once in a while. A couple weeks," Alex explains.

And Alex says they'd reuse the towel.

Now they have to take all their clothes home to be washed every night; the school hired a professional company to launder the teams towels. And the kids are told to wash their hands frequently.

Alex and Glenn may become "hand washers."

"I guess I'll have to become one," Glenn says. "Not an extreme hand washer."

"I mean, do you think it does something to the image of a tough, macho football player, gets down in the mud and all of a sudden he has to go wash his hands?" Stahl asks.

"Yeah, a little bit," Glenn admits.

"To think we control community MRSA epidemics by asking people to wash their hands is foolish. I'm not gonna sit here and say washing your hands is bad. Because it's wonderful. But, it's not going to control the community MRSA epidemic," Dr. Daum says.

What's the answer?

"We need more research. And we need to understand why this is happening," Daum says. "And how is it spreading? And what are the new high risk groups?"

"Nobody knows, is what you're saying," Stahl remarks.

"I'm saying that a lot of work needs to be done to find the root cause," Daum replies.

New drugs for MRSA are emerging from the pharmaceutical pipeline, but there's little doubt the superbug will eventually become resistant to them, too. The real hope lies with researchers working on a MRSA vaccine.

Mt. Lebanon has come in for a lot of razzing. Its new nickname is "Mount MRSA." At one football game, students from the opposing school showed up with surgical masks and rubber gloves and their team refused to use the locker rooms.

"It's MRSA. Yeah, that's why I cover it up," a player explained.

Much of the fear at Mt. Lebanon is gone. For the football team, MRSA is a fact of life that they just live with. While MRSA can be deadly if it gets into the bloodstream and attacks vital organs like lungs and hearts, the lesson of Mt. Lebanon is if it's caught early, there's no reason for panic. And most kids can get on with their usual routines.

Glenn says when he got MRSA he did not have to stop playing football.

"So, if someone gets MRSA and they cover up the sore, they can keep playing?" Stahl asks,

"Yes," Glenn says.

So the only real change in the lives of the students at Mt. Lebanon has had to do with cleanliness.

"Guys, as someone said to us, used to hold on to their good luck jersey and never wash it. Those days are over," Stahl says.

"Those days are -- I still have my lucky shirt. But, it's gotta be clean," Alex says, laughing.

"Doesn't have the grunge on it," Stahl remarks.

"I don't know. I'm never too into the lucky grunge. But, the lucky shirt still has the same appeal for me," Alex says, laughing.

Produced By Karen Sughrue

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.