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The Truth About Superbugs

When you hear from your daycare provider in the middle of the day, you can almost always assume some run-of-the-mill bad news -- a sudden fever, a split lip, vomiting, the usual. When Missy Pearce, 25, got the call about her 17-month-old son last October, she assumed much the same. And then the center's owner told Pearce she thought Andy might have a staph infection. Staph is a common bacteria that lives on the skin and in the nose and throat but can cause illness if it gains access to the body through a scratch. Pearce had noticed a tiny pimple above Andy's left hip six days earlier, and her husband had even tried to pop it. Though it had gotten bigger, they still weren't too worried. "Andy has eczema and sensitive skin," says Pearce, who lives in Providence Forge, Virginia. "We thought it was an allergy to his diapers." That's an easy mistake to make given that staph infections often present as inflamed skin with one or more pimples, and in babies, the diaper area is often affected.

The call unsettled Pearce, so both she and her husband left work to take Andy to his doctor right away. By then, the pimple had swelled to the size of a boil. The pediatrician took one look and said Andy seemed to have classic MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), a type of staph that's resistant to many common first-line antibiotics, including methicillin.

They were shocked. "The only thing I knew about MRSA was that a teenage boy in a nearby town had recently died from it, and that terrified me," says Pearce. Andy's pediatrician knew lab tests to confirm her diagnosis would take a couple of days (a rapid test has since been approved); not wanting to lose any time, she treated him for MRSA in the interim, prescribing both oral and topical antibiotics. But even though the doctor's instincts were right, her quick action wasn't enough. Over the next two days, Andy became much, much sicker. "The infected area had spread to his abdomen and all the way down to his groin," says Pearce. They brought him back to the doctor, who advised them to take Andy immediately to the emergency room. The baby had surgery to remove the infection the next night.

Pearce didn't sleep during the torturous wait. "I was in survival mode. Plus, they told me he'd be able to go home after the procedure," she says. "When the doctor came out and told us we might have to stay for a while, I just fell apart and cried." Over the next five days, Andy received another antibiotic intravenously. When he was finally released, Pearce believed her family's battle with staph was over. But as she discovered all too soon, this bug knows how to fight back. a growing threat to babies MRSA hit the headlines last fall when a shocking report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in Atlanta, revealed that the organism was associated with 19,000 American deaths in 2005 -- more than AIDS -- and caused serious infections in another 94,000.