CHICAGO — Researchers say they found an "alarming" increase in children's ear, nose and throat infections nationwide caused by dangerous drug-resistant staph germs.
Other studies have shown rising numbers of skin infections in adults and children caused by these germs, nicknamed MRSA, but this is the first nationwide report on how common they are in deeper tissue infections in the head and neck, the study authors said. These include certain ear and sinus infections, and abscesses that can form in the tonsils and throat.
The study found 21,009 pediatric head and neck infections caused by staph germs from 2001 through 2006. The percentage caused by hard-to-treat MRSA bacteria more than doubled during that time, from almost 12 percent to 28 percent.
"In most parts of the United States, there's been an alarming rise," said Dr. Steven Sobol, study author and a children's head and neck specialist at Emory University.
The study appears in January's Archives of Otolaryngology, released Monday. It is based on nationally representative lab results from more than 300 hospitals nationwide.
MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, can cause life-threatening invasive infections. Doctors believe inappropriate use of antibiotics has contributed to its rise.
Almost 60 percent of the MRSA infections found in the study were thought to have been contracted outside a hospital setting. The study didn't look at the severity of the illnesses.
Dr. Robert Daum, a University of Chicago expert in community-acquired MRSA, said the study should alert agencies that fund U.S. research "that this is a major public health problem."
MRSA involvement in adult head and neck infections has been reported, although data on prevalence is scarce.
MRSA infections were once limited mostly to hospitals, nursing homes and other health care settings, but other studies have shown they are increasingly picked up in the community, in otherwise healthy people. This can happen through skin-to-skin contact or contact with surfaces contaminated with germs from cuts and other open wounds.
But staph germs also normally "colonize" on the skin and other tissues including inside the nose and throat, without causing symptoms. Other studies have shown that the number of people who carry MRSA germs is on the rise.
Sobol said MRSA head and neck infections most likely develop in MRSA carriers, who become susceptible because of ear, nose or throat infections caused by some other bug.
MRSA does not respond to penicillin-based antibiotics and doctors are concerned that it is becoming resistant to others.
The study authors said 46 percent of MRSA infections studied were resistant to the antibiotic clindamycin, one of the drugs doctors often rely on to treat community-acquired MRSA.