MRSA turns 50, but who remembers, MRSA Action UK

With the opening of the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester on Sunday the 2nd October, who of those attending will realise the significance of the date and that it coincides with remarkable event some 50 years ago to the very day.

When a golden anniversary arrives it’s usually marked by a celebration; however this year there is one for which there will be no fanfare, or celebration. Whilst most people have heard of MRSA, how many will be aware that this year marks its 50th anniversary, the significance of which will have and has had a profound effect on us all.

The majority of people alive today were born in an antibiotic era, if you “get an infection”, today the answer is simple, “just take an antibiotic”, but for how much longer.

It was not always like this, it would be wise for us to remember that the early part of the 20th Century and even up to the middle part of that century, over 50% of people did not live past the age of 65 and that infections were the leading cause of death. People then lived in mortal fear of bacterial infections, there was no cure, and the only defence was scrupulous hygiene in both the home and hospital.

Where does MRSA fit in all of this? Why does it still give us cause for concern 50 years after it first appeared? Moreover, what lessons can be learnt 50 years on for future generations.

MRSA was the first “Super Bug” to go global; its evolution began 30 years before its discovery under the microscope of Professor Patricia Jevons at the public health laboratories at Colindale North London, now the Health Protection Agency. Its evolution is owed to Fleming’s discovery of penicillin in 1928.

Strangely there were no newspaper headlines announcing the discovery of MRSA, just a mention in the British Medical Journal in 1961. The bacteria did not require a fanfare to begin to spread, first to Denmark in 1963, then on to the USA in 1968, by the late 1970’s it was as far as Eastern Australia, and by the late 1980’s it had touched virtually every healthcare facility in the world.

In the UK there is now and has been a concerted effort to reduce MRSA infections to the irreducible minimum. There has been a determination to ensure staff cleanse their hands between patients with the “Cleanyourhands” campaign, although this has now been closed down, there are some in the Health Service who are determined to see the work of the former campaign continue by forming a new advisory group along with patient groups.

We must not however, under any circumstances become complacent and think that we have now brought infections like MRSA under control, as some in the Department of Health would like us to think. Take the recent article from the department of health announcing, “MRSA in the NHS is at a record low – 25 acute trusts are MRSA free for more than a year”.

Looking back just 19 years ago infection rates for MRSA in our hospitals stood at just 1.7% against the present average of between 15/20%, this repudiates what is considered by the Department of Health as a record low. This is disingenuous and in our view somewhat of an insult to the intelligence of the British public in giving the impression that those hospitals are MRSA free. It is in our opinion, difficult for the Department of Health to proclaim this headline, and yet herald it as being accurate when they cannot say with complete certainty that it is true, and that any hospital is totally MRSA free.

MRSA infections have not displaced other infections in our hospitals, it has just added to the burden. We must extend our gaze to other more potentially deadly infections that lurk just over the horizon, and with the financial pressures on the NHS to make savings, now is not the time to release our grip. Governments past and present are as much to blame for the spread of MRSA as anyone, if not more, by not ensuring monies were available to ensure infection control budgets were protected.

In the same year as the first outbreak and death from MRSA, the late John F Kennedy in his American University speech in 1963 said

"In the final analysis our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet, we all breath the same air, we all cherish our children's future, & we are all mortal."

Though he was speaking on another issue, nuclear armaments, this could apply to the control of super bugs like MRSA, Klebsiella, E-coli C-diff and Acinetobactor, for if the last 50 years have taught us anything, it is that Governments should realise that this is a global problem not confined to just one country.

Will we still have antibiotics to treat infections on the 75th anniversary of MRSA? The World Health Organisation believes that unless drastic action is taken, a post antibiotic era is not a matter of if, but when.

Today medical science is encountering bacteria that are resistant to every known antibiotic we have. Will our children and grand children hear a doctor say, “You’ve got an infection?” – Sorry “no antibiotics left.”

Derek Butler
MRSA Action UK
07762 741114