18 Mar 2015

Skin antibiotic use linked to superbug spread

11:19 am on 18 March 2015

There are warnings the treatment of children's skin infections with antibiotic ointment is driving the spread of hospital superbugs and putting lives at risk.

Research sounding the alarm over the use of the ointment, called fusidic acid, has been presented to scientists attending the annual Australasian Society for Infectious Diseases meeting in Auckland today.

New Zealand has one of the highest incidences in the developed world of Staphylococcus Aureus, which causes the superbug, MRSA.

It presents in children as school sores, boils and crusty ulcers which doctors commonly treated with the ointment.

The research said the result was bacterial resistance to the ointment, and the emergence of a new multi-drug resistant strain of MRSA.

Clinical Microbiologist and lead researcher at Otago University Deborah Williamson said a complicating factor was the explosion in the number of skin infections in children over the past decade, which meant use of the ointment had increased.

Dr Williamson was calling for use of the ointment to be regulated.

MRSA is commonly carried on the skin and in people's noses, and could be spread by skin-on-skin contact or by touching contaminated surfaces.

People can carry superbugs without having symptoms, but they can be very difficult to treat in certain patients. People most at risk of a superbug infection are often hospital patients who are elderly or very sick, or who have an open wound, such as a bedsore, or a tube going into their body, such as a urinary catheter.

"The capacity to treat serious infections is really becoming less in all parts of the world," said Dr Williamson.

"Without urgent, co-ordinated action by many stakeholders, the world is headed for a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries which have been treatable for decades can once again kill.

"Here in New Zealand we can now see directly that our treatment of childhood skin infections is threatening our precious supply of antibiotics. We have a responsibility to current and future generations to ensure the safe and responsible use of antibiotics."