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New strains of staph trouble doctors

Flesh-eating bacteria cases, fatal pneumonia and life-threatening heart infections suddenly are popping up around the country, striking healthy people and stunning their doctors.

The cause? Staph, a bacteria better known for causing skin boils easily treated with standard antibiotic pills.

No more, say infectious disease experts, who increasingly are seeing these "super bugs" _ strains of Staphylococcus aureus unfazed by the entire penicillin family and other first-line drugs.

Until a few years ago, these drug-resistant infections were unheard of except in hospital patients, prison inmates and the chronically ill. Now, resistant strains are infecting healthy children, athletes and others with no connection to a hospital.

"This is a new bug," said Dr. John Bartlett, who chairs the committee on antibiotic resistance at the Infectious Diseases Society of America. "It's a different strain than in the hospital . . . more dangerous than other staph.

"Primary care physicians and ER doctors, they don't all know (about this) and should," he said.

Bartlett, a professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, treated three young Baltimore area women this year who got pneumonia from this community-acquired resistant staph. All had to be put on breathing machines, and one died, he said.

The infections will be a hot topic at the society's annual meeting this week in Boston. The group has been warning that drug companies aren't developing enough new antibiotics to avert a crisis.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study shows another new twist: The resistant staph strain caused pneumonia in 17 people, killing five, during last year's flu season. Only one had any risk factors for the infection.