October 7, 2009
Ken Reimer's activism began when his infant daughter, Madeline, died after contracting a mysterious illness.
In Jeanine Thomas' case, doctors almost amputated her leg. Debbie Holsten spent nearly $150,000 recovering from a superbug.
This month, Reimer, Thomas and Holsten are speaking up about the dangerous bacterium that caused them so much pain. They are among a passionate group of local activists urging more action to stem the spread of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA.
MRSA survivors gathered last week at Loyola University's downtown campus to observe the first-ever World MRSA Day, which kicked off MRSA Awareness Month to spread the word about a dangerous infection.
"It shatters people's lives," said Thomas, a Willowbrook resident who is founder of the MRSA Survivors Network and was bedridden for months while recovering from the damage caused by MRSA.
"The media and the government like the disease du jour," said Dr. William Jarvis, an Oregon-based infectious disease specialist who has studied the spread of MRSA. "I think the time has come for our government to spend sufficient resources to stop MRSA infections."
When compared with much-publicized diseases such as SARS and swine flu, Jarvis and others say the dangers of MRSA demand a stronger response.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention consider MRSA a "major public health problem" and estimate that 19,000 people die from MRSA in the United States each year. Fewer than 15,000 die annually from HIV/AIDS.
MRSA first appeared in American hospitals in the late 1970s, and the threat has grown exponentially since then. The disease comes in two forms: community-associated MRSA and the more common hospital-associated disease. MRSA is contracted by contact with items where the bug may reside, such as playgrounds, medical utensils, doctors' jackets or even other people's skin. It often enters the body through cuts or during surgery.
MRSA is tougher to treat than other staph infections because it is resistant to many antibiotics, as the name suggests. It's unclear how widespread the problem is in Chicago and Illinois, but 1.2 million MRSA infections were documented nationwide in 2006.
Illinois was the first state to require hospitals to report infection rates, but the state health department has yet to release the numbers. At least 25 other states publish the data. A Web site with statistics from 2008 is expected to launch sometime this month, said Illinois Department of Public Health spokeswoman Kelly Jakubek.
State legislation mandates that all hospitals screen at-risk patients and those entering intensive care units, but Thomas said all patients should be screened.
"It's about saving lives," she said. Thomas said she may push for broader legislation for MRSA screening.
At Loyola University Hospital in Maywood, where all patients have been screened since late 2007, the number of hospital-associated MRSA cases has dropped by two-thirds, said Dr. Jorge Parada, associate professor of medicine, infectious diseases, at the Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine.
Parada said Loyola saw a 566 percent jump in patients coming to the emergency room with MRSA from 2000 to 2007 and, once it began universal screening, found one in every 14 patients was already colonized with MRSA upon admission. Those found to be infected are isolated and treated.
"Without looking for MRSA, all we see is the tip of the iceberg," he said.
Still, activists' efforts won't bring Reimer's daughter back.
MRSA devastated Reimer and his wife, Beth. The Batavia couple lost their newborn, Madeline, to the disease. A second daughter, Emma, was diagnosed with the bacterium shortly after her birth but survived.
"We were trying to figure out how a healthy baby girl dies from something we've never heard of, a superbug," Reimer said. "These are two babies that didn't do anything wrong."