HEALTH

Antibiotic Overuse Means Golden Staph 'Superbug' Is Now More Common Outside Of Hospitals Than In

There are more than 2,300 cases of severe infections in Australia each year.

30/10/2017 1:47 PM AEDT | Updated 30/10/2017 1:51 PM AEDT
UIG via Getty Images
Antibiotic-resistance is making staph infections harder to treat.

The golden staph 'superbug' once synonymous with hospitals and the elderly is now primarily affecting young people in the community, not medical institutions -- and medical researchers believe the overuse of antibiotics is likely to blame.

Golden staph, or 'Staphylococcus aureus', usually occurs when a cut or break in the skin becomes infected, causing redness, swelling, irritation or a boil.

"What happens for most people is they get a cut or they get a boil and that's a staph infection, an accumulation of puss -- when you get red, hot and get a bit of a fever around it," explained research author Dr Jason Agostino from the Australian National University.

"For most people it stays there only on the skin either as cellulitis or a boil. But for some people it gets into the blood stream."

What Is A Staph Infection?

Staph is a common bacterium, 'Staphylococcus aureus', which lives on the skin and in the noses of around one in five Australians. Approximately one to two percent of people have an antibiotic-resistant staph bacteria living on them.

Infections usually occur due to cuts, grazes or following medical procedures and are generally treatable with antibiotics, but if the bacteria enters the bloodstream it can cause a life-threatening infection.

Antibiotic-resistant staph, also called MRSA, is harder to treat and more likely to prove deadly.

In 2015, there were more than 2,300 cases of severe MRSA infections in Australia.

One in five of those infected will die within 30 days.

Skin infections generally aren't serious and can be treated with antibiotics but if the staph bacteria enters the bloodstream, it causes a deadly infection that will kill more than one in five of its victims within 30 days.

Staph bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, known as MRSA, are harder to treat and more likely to be deadly than their antibiotic-susceptible counterparts.

At the turn of the century, nine out of 10 antibiotic-resistant staph infections were caught in hospitals.

Improved hand hygiene practices by doctors and nurses and increased screening rates for staph bacteria have seen these rates drop, but the number of people infected outside of hospitals is steadily climbing.

Between 2008 and 2014, the majority of MRSA cases (56.9 percent) were contracted by people who haven't been to hospital in the past year, a study of almost 40,000 people in northeastern NSW has found.

Denver Post via Getty Images
Some patients will have to have limbs amputated to stem the spread of disease.

Worryingly, its putting teenagers and young people at risk.

The average age of those who catch the bug outside of hospitals was just 26 years (compared to 65 years old inside hospitals) and teenagers aged 10-19 were the single most infected group.

Overuse of antibiotics is largely to blame, Dr Agostino told HuffPost Australia.

Australian GPs prescribe antibiotics at up to nine times the recommended rate, with around five million Aussies taking them unnecessarily each year.

"Australia prescribes more than double the amount of antibiotics than some countries in Europe and it's in these environment that drug-resistant bugs such as staph develop," Dr Agostino said.

The more antibiotics are being used in any one region, the more a process of natural selection will favour the staph bugs resistance to those antibiotics, making them more likely to thrive and spread, he explained.

"So the more we can bring that rate down, the less beneficial it is for bugs to develop this antibiotic resistance."

UniversalImagesGroup via Getty Images
Improved hygiene practices has helped to reduce the rates of infection within hospitals.

Young people were more likely to contract staph infections because they had more skin-to-skin contact than other age groups and were frequently cut and grazed during sports and other activities.

Indigenous Australians and those in nursing homes are also high-risk groups, according to the research published on Monday in the Medical Journal of Australia.

As well as reducing antibiotic use, simple hygiene practices such as regular hand washing and keeping cuts and grazes covered until they're healed can counter the spread of the bug, Dr Agostino said.

More On This Topic