‘Superbug’ warning issued

Paul Bickford/NNSL photo Judy Steele, the supervisor of Public Health in Hay River, holds a brochure about methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

Paul Bickford/NNSL photo
Judy Steele, the supervisor of Public Health in Hay River, holds a brochure about methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

Health officials are warning about an increased incidence of a so-called superbug – bacteria that has become resistant to common antibiotics – in the Hay River area, and considered a contributing factor in two deaths within the past year.

The superbug is methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

Dr. Andre Corriveau, the NWT’s chief medical health officer, said he could not provide any detailed information on the deaths because of confidentiality concerns, other than to say they were in the Hay River area.

Corriveau was asked if MRSA was the main cause of the deaths or a contributing factor.

“It’s not always possible to be sure,” he said. “So we just put it as a contributing factor.”

As a result of the deaths and the increased incidence of MRSA, the Hay River Health and Social Services Authority has begun a public awareness campaign.

The number of cases in Hay River is still less than the overall NWT average.

Judy Steele, the public health supervisor in Hay River, said MRSA was mostly picked up at hospitals years ago, and not many cases were acquired in the community.

“Our rates were going along fairly low compared to the rest of the Northwest Territories, and in the past year we’ve seen quite a rise in the incidents of community acquired,” she said, adding it is not clear why that is happening.

“We can have it on the surface of our skin and never, ever cause us any trouble, ever,” she said of the bacteria. “And where the trouble comes is if you have it on the surface of the skin, and you get a cut or a scrape or something, then the bacteria can enter in through that way.”

Steele said it can then cause a rash, pustules or boils that are usually easy to treat.

“But it’s when this bacteria invades the bloodstream and causes septic shock or blood poisoning, that’s really a very hard bacteria to treat and it could be fatal,” she said. “The other way people can get it is if it gets into the respiratory tract and into the lungs and causes a very severe form of pneumonia, and those have a very high rate of fatalities.”

The bacteria can even cause flesh-eating disease.

Corriveau said there have been an increased number of incidents all across the NWT over the past couple of years, and it’s a “growing concern” from a public health perspective.

“Staphylococcus aureus is a common bug that causes skin infections but now there are some strains of it that have become resistant to the commonly used antibiotics, the ones that we would use normally as first line,” he explained. “So they need more powerful antibiotics that cost more and that have more side effects. It’s still treatable, but if you don’t know from the beginning that you’re dealing with MRSA, you start with the wrong antibiotic and then you have to adjust later on and it allows more time for the infection to get bigger and more severe. So that’s the main concern and why we’d like to limit its spread as much as possible.”

Corriveau said there have been MRSA-related deaths in the past in the South Slave and other areas of the NWT.

“We’re going to work with the community and the reserve, as well, to step up the information and make sure that people know what can be done to limit the spread of this,” he said.

The health official said MRSA may often spread in overcrowded settings, especially if people share bedding, towels or clothing.

As for how people might be able to tell the difference between the flu and an MRSA-related illness, Corriveau said, “If it seems to get worse than a typical flu, especially if it gets into the lungs, you would get shortness of breath or pain in breathing, or the fever is not coming down with Tylenol or the regular cold remedies that you would take. Then that’s a sign that you should go and get checked. So don’t wait if you feel that it’s not going in the right direction, basically.”

Steele said, if a person has a rash, sores or an infection, they need to seek medical advice.

“The only way to diagnose if it is MRSA is through laboratory testing,” she said.

Skin infections can be anywhere on the body but are common around the eyes, neck, armpits, nose and groin.

A sore that is draining puss or weepy can be MRSA, said Steele. “I’m not saying every wound like that is MRSA but the only way to know for sure is to be tested.”

She added basic hygiene, like hand washing, and cleaning bathroom surfaces are also important, noting most household cleaners kill MRSA.

The bacteria can also be found in such places as hockey equipment, doorknobs and TV remote controls.

It can even be caught and spread by dogs and cats.

–Paul Bickford