An antibiotic-resistant bacterium is making its way north, according to northern public health officials.
Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, is a form of common bacterium found on the skin, which can cause skin infections and boils.
“We’re keeping a watch on it because it seems to be increasing in the (Northwest Territories), in the communities and also Nunavut,” said Yukon Medical Health Officer Brendan Hanley.
“It looks like it’s increasing in the Yukon as well — there are a few more cases every year.”
Whitehorse General Hospital has seen an average of 40 cases per year since 2006.
While this amount is still lower than in parts of southern Canada, where it is normally caused by outbreaks in hospitals, the bug’s increasing prevalence is concerning northern health officials.
The superbug was discussed at an annual meeting of northern public health officials in Iqualuit last week.
The issue was raised by a representative from Alaska where a recent study on the bacterium found its presence could be associated with a lack of piped water.
Whitehorse General Hospital already has protocol in place to prevent the spread of MRSA.
Patients who have been to any other hospital in the last six months are kept in isolation until it can be proved that they don’t have the bug, said Hanley.
“That’s to keep it from basically colonizing the hospital.”
Aside from recent hospitalization, other risk factors include intravenous drug users and those that play team sports.
“Sharing sports equipment or being in close contact with people, plus the higher likelihood of injury, means athletes are at higher risk for infection,” he said.
“The reason for that would be that presumably someone is colonized with this resistant bacterium and this can give rise to basically sharing the bug.”
In the past, some infections have been linked to the Canada Games Centre, said Hanley.
“But the problem isn’t the turf or the centre, it’s just that people aren’t taking the necessary precautions.”
Yukon health officials can’t be sure how prevalent the superbug is in the territory, he added.
“We track whoever happens to be cultured but no one has ever done a survey to look at the exact numbers.”
About a third of the population are carriers of Staphylococcus — the more common form of the bug.
Studies conducted in southern Canada have found that up to one or two per cent of the population may be colonized with the resistant form.
And because MRSA is carried on the skin, if you get an injury or even a scratch, the opportunistic bug enters the body and causes infection.
Regular staph infections and boils will sometimes heal on their own or can be treated with antibiotics.
“To treat MRSA in normal, healthy individuals it may just be a matter of switching the antibiotic or using an intravenous antibiotic,” said Hanley.
“It would be a longer duration and more intense follow-up, but the patient is going to get better.”
However, in those with other diseases or weakened immune systems, the bug could lead to serious problems such as severe pneumonia or joint and blood infections.
What can you do to prevent infection?
The simple solution is to follow the general rules of hygiene, with regular hand washing and bathing.
Yukoners should avoid antibacterial products, such as soaps and detergents, as they may be associated with higher rates of resistance, said Hanley.
“We certainly know that there’s no extra benefit from that and there may be some harm,” he said.
“There’s nothing better than plain old soap and water for hand washing and for wound care.”
Athletes need to refrain from sharing things like equipment, washcloths, toothbrushes, towels and razors.
And according to the recent Alaskan study, those with a limited water supply should make sure that they wash their hands well and take care of wounds.
Communities and homes that use trucked water need not panic.
“The Alaskan study did not look at trucked water, it looked at where people actually have to go out and bring water in, which is a whole other level,” said Hanley.
“So I would not suspect there being a problem with trucked water — those people still have enough water for basic hygiene.”
The territory also needs to pay more attention to antibiotic use.
Health-care providers need to be reminded that antibiotics should only be used if absolutely necessary so as not to provoke resistance, he added.
“If patients are told that they don’t need an antibiotic for a particular type of infection like a cold, the flu or a simple boil then they should pay attention to that and not insist on antibiotics.”