staphSome of you who have been reading here for a while may know that I am someting of an epidemiology geek.  I am utterly fascinated by diseases, how they spread, how they're treated, how they're adapting and evolving, and what we can do in our daily lives to reduce the spread of dangerous diseases.

Something popped up on my radar today that I've been expecting, but sincerely hoping not to see.  A strain of drug-resistant staph is taking root in parts of the country and rapidly spreading, particularly in the poor neighborhoods of our major cities.

To wit:

CHICAGO — Drug-resistant staph infections have spread to the urban poor, rising almost seven-fold in recent years in some Chicago neighborhoods, a new study finds.

Researchers said the crowded living conditions of public housing and jails may speed up the person-to-person spread of infection.

The superbugs, first seen mainly in hospitals and nursing homes, have turned up recently among athletes, prisoners and people who get illegal tattoos.

Called methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, these staph germs can cause skin infections that in rare cases have led to pneumonia, bloodstream infections and a painful, flesh-destroying condition. MRSA is hard to treat because the bacteria have developed resistance to the penicillin drug family.

Ah, yes, good old necrotizing fasciitis, the flesh-eating bacteria you heard so much about a few years ago, when it was being played to the American public as the bacteriological equivalent to the Killer Bee threat.  Well, it's here, and the bulk of the drugs we use to treat staphylococcus are useless.  These staph cells just laugh at penicillin as they trash your immune system and ravage your body.

As I said in one of my early posts here at the Lake, a society is only as healthy as its poorest parts of town, epidemiologically speaking.  Diseases begin where living conditions are poor and overcrowded, but they have a tendency to become upwardly mobile very fast: 

Dr. Susan Gerber of Chicago's Department of Public Health said it would be a mistake to assume the infection isn't also in affluent neighborhoods. The study looked only at people using the public hospital system. The infection rate in the general population is unknown.

"This is an equal opportunity bacteria," Gerber said.

Oh, but really, they all are.  Many times, these types of drug-resistant "superbugs" are found in hospitals, where surviving several rounds of drugs and disinfectants results in generations of ever hardier and more resistant pathogens, and hospitals aren't just for the poor.

Couple this with Jeralyn's post earlier about the Georgia man with drug-resistant TB who violated medical instructions (possibly infecting two plane-loads of trans-Atlantic passengers and who knows how many face-to-face contacts with a strain of super-virulent tuberculosis in the process) and it's clear that there are some serious holes in our front-line defenses against infectious disease.  But this, of course, is the problem with for-profit health care.  The most vulnerable people in the United States are the very people who are least likely to be able to afford to get help, and that's going to cost all of us, eventually.

And no, I'm not impressed, Mr. Obama, with your new health care plan.  Your intentions are good, but you're still leaving the health insurance companies ultimately in charge of who gets health care and how effective it is, and that's just not going to cut it.  What we need here is a total paradigm shift, which (from what I understand) is the message at the heart of Michael Moore's newest film, "Sicko"

It's precisely this sort of boot-licking obesiance to genuinely evil corporations that makes me so discouraged with our current batch of pols on both sides of the aisle.  The massive companies that control broadcasting, health care, and ultimately politics want you to believe that it's impossible for a society to provide free health care to its citizens.  They pollute the discourse with endless urban legends about the horrors of socialized medicine.  Of course, if Americans could be bothered to venture outside our own borders, we'd see for ourselves how easy it is to get quality health care in every major European nation as well as just north of us in Canada. 

My Dad told me years ago that nothing turns your ass into a target quite like burying your head in the sand, but regarding the dangers of infectious disease and our woefully inadequate health care system, that's exactly our current posture.  As long as a bunch of people with high school educations and accountants' mentalities control the quality of our medical care, we are begging for a catastrophe.

Last night in a guest slot on KIRO-AM with David Goldstein, I told a caller that out-of-control capitalism is every bit as dangerous as out-of-control communism, that if we are to survive as a nation, we have to erect a wall between commercial interests and the machinery of the state, just as much as we profess to have a wall between church and state.  When policy is tailored to the desires of corporations, everyone loses except the wealthy white men in the corner offices.

Of course, they get sick, too, and it may just take a devastating pandemic disaster before the Bill Frists and Richard Scrushys of this country are forced to relinquish their choke-hold on medical treatment.  The United States never seems to do anything pro-actively these days, I guess.  Instead, we plunge headlong from one disaster to the next and (if forced) maybe learn something from our dramatic failures.  (Iraq, anyone?)

In the meantime, wash your hands, please.  Thank you.