MRSA: Fighting The Superbug

As Reports Of Infection Rise, Expert Says More Research Is Needed To Find The Root Cause

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.