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Fact Sheet – Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus

What is Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus?

Staphylococcus aureus (Staph) is a type of bacteria that is commonly found on the skin and in the noses of healthy people. Some Staph bacteria are easily treatable while others are not. Staph bacteria that are resistant to the antibiotic methicillin are known as Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA. If left untreated, MRSA infections may develop into serious, life-threatening complications such as infection of the bloodstream, bones and/or lungs (e.g., pneumonia).

MRSA is primarily spread by skin-to-skin contact or through contact with items contaminated by the bacteria. Those with weakened immune systems and chronic illnesses are more susceptible to the infection and MRSA has been shown to spread easily in healthcare settings.

Who gets MRSA?

MRSA infections occur most commonly among people in hospitals and other healthcare facilities. This has been recognized as a problem for the past 20 years. Outbreaks are more common in healthcare settings because some patients already have a compromised immune system. People with weakened immune systems and chronic conditions are more susceptible to the infection.

How is MRSA spread?

At any given time, between 20 and 30 per cent of the general population carry Staph bacteria on their hands or in their noses, but are not ill. Some of these bacteria may be MRSA, while others are not antibiotic resistant. You may have MRSA and not be sick, however you can still spread it to others and they can become ill.

MRSA is usually spread through direct physical contact or through contact with objects contaminated with infected bodily fluids. If you pick up the bacteria on your hands through physical contact with an infected person or from a contaminated surface, you can spread it to others if you don’t clean your hands properly. You can also infect yourself through an open wound on your own body.

How is an MRSA infection diagnosed?

To diagnose an MRSA infection, often a sample from the infected area is taken. Once the sample has been taken, the organism must be allowed to grow in the laboratory. The organism is then tested to determine which antibiotics may be effective for treating the infection.

How is MRSA treated?

If MRSA is detected early, it can usually be treated effectively with antibiotics other than methicillin. It is important that individuals who think they might have an MRSA infection seek advice from a health professional quickly, so that the infection can be properly diagnosed and treated effectively. Early diagnosis also ensures that appropriate measures can be taken to limit the spread of the infection.

Do people die from MRSA infections?

On rare occasions an MRSA infection can result in life threatening illness or death. However, most cases are limited to the skin and can be successfully treated.

How can I prevent MRSA skin infections?

In order to prevent these infections, it is important to practise good hygiene. Keep your hands clean by washing thoroughly with soap and water or by using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Make sure that any cuts and scrapes are kept clean and covered until they have healed. It is also important that you avoid unprotected contact with other people's wounds or bandages. Finally, do not share personal items such as towels or razors.

If I have an MRSA skin infection, what can I do to prevent others from getting infected?

To prevent the spread of MRSA skin infections you must:

  • Cover your wound. Any wounds that are draining or have pus must be kept covered with clean, dry bandages. Pus or other drainage from the wound can contain MRSA, so make sure that the bandages and tape used to cover the wound are properly discarded. Healthcare providers can answer any questions about how to properly care for any wounds.
  • Wash hands frequently. This is especially important after changing bandages or touching the infected area. By washing your hands you can limit the transmission of the bacteria.
  • Avoid sharing personal items. Bacteria can be transferred to another person through contact with items such as towels, razors or washcloths so try to avoid sharing these items. Make sure any soiled clothing is washed; water and regular laundry detergent is sufficient.
  • Talk to your doctor or healthcare provider. Tell them that you have, or have had, an MRSA skin infection.

Why is there an increase in the rates of MRSA in Canada?

There are a number of reasons. Screening techniques are more effective now than they were in the past. More hospitals are actively screening for MRSA, and as a result, we are seeing a higher number of reported cases of MRSA. Laboratory tests to diagnose MRSA are now more rapidly completed, which means more cases are diagnosed early.

We also know that the misuse of antibiotics in both hospital and community settings can cause infections like MRSA to become more virulent and more difficult to contain and treat. If antibiotics are prescribed to treat infections unnecessarily or when individuals do not complete their prescriptions, infections can develop a resistance to antibiotics.

What is the Government of Canada and PHAC doing to address the spread of MRSA in hospitals?

The Government of Canada is committed to working with its partners at all levels of government, hospitals and within the communities to reduce the incidence and spread of these infections.

PHAC supports the Canadian Nosocomial Infection Surveillance Program (CNISP), which provides evidence-based data that can be used to establish rates for comparisons, identify trends and develop national guidelines to help reduce the transmission of infections like MRSA.

Recently, PHAC has partnered with the Community Healthcare Infection Control Association of Canada and the Canadian Patient Safety Institute to co-lead a new antibiotic resistant organism reduction teaching module for Safer Healthcare Now (SHN). The module will focus on reducing the incidence of MRSA in healthcare settings and will be used to train front-line healthcare workers on actions they can take to reduce the incidence of MRSA.

Government officials are reviewing options for ways to support a multi-partner approach for reducing the burden of hospital-acquired infections.

Who can regulate policies in the hospitals to address MRSA?

The Government of Canada is committed to working with its partners at all levels of government, hospitals and within the communities to reduce the incidence and spread of these infections. The delivery of healthcare is a provincial/territorial responsibility. As the federal Government champion on infection control, PHAC's role is to develop guidelines and conduct ongoing surveillance that allow provinces and territories to make informed decisions and implement effective policies to address this issue.

The Canadian Nosocomial Infection Surveillance Program is an important part of a multi-pronged approach to addressing healthcare acquired infections. It provides evidence-based data that can be used to establish benchmarks, identify trends to develop national guidelines to help reduce the transmission of healthcare acquired infections.