It's an acronym that can cause terror - MRSA. It stands for Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, and it is the bacteria that is often spread in hospitals and other health care settings, infecting about 95,000 Americans per year and killing 19,000, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Legislation recently introduced in Congress would require hospitals to screen patients to identify those who are carriers of MRSA, to help prevent the spread of the infection by identifying which patients need special handling. And Consumers Union is championing the bills.

HR 2937, sponsored in the House by Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., and a similar bill in the U.S. Senate - S 1305, sponsored by Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J. - also require hospitals to disclose MRSA rates to the public, so consumers can use that data in making health care decisions.

"MRSA infections are mostly preventable, but thousands of Americans die every year from them, and many more suffer needlessly because hospitals fail to protect patients from being exposed to these dangerous superbugs," said Lisa McGiffert, Director of Consumers Union's Safe Patient Project.

"This legislation will improve patient care and let the public know which hospitals have the best track record when it comes to preventing infections."

The CDC estimates nearly 19,000 Americans died in 2005 from MRSA infections, out of the 95,000 who contracted it and were treated for it in hospitals that year. It also says that 85 percent of those infections were acquired in the hospital or other health care settings.

In addition to strict hand hygiene, successful strategies for controlling MRSA include testing patients, isolating patients identified as having MRSA, using gowns, gloves and masks when treating them (contact precautions), and routine decontamination of patient rooms and operating rooms.

Under HR 2937, hospitals initially would be required to screen all patients admitted to intensive care units and other high-risk units to determine whether they are colonized with MRSA bacteria. By 2014, hospitals would be required to screen all patients for MRSA. The bill encourages hospitals to follow other effective infection-control strategies, such as strict hand hygiene and contact precautions to prevent the spread of MRSA to other patients.

The practices described in the bill have been found to dramatically reduce the incidence of antibiotic-resistant infections. The Veterans Health Administration adopted these strategies at all of its 150 hospitals after a pilot program in Pennsylvania resulted in a 70 percent reduction of MRSA infections in surgical units. Other hospitals have used these strategies to achieve even larger reductions in MRSA infections.

The CDC says rates of infection varied between geographically diverse sites, but overall rates of disease were consistently highest in people older than 65, blacks and males.

The Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology, or APIC, has found that only 29 percent of the infection control professionals it surveyed reported that their hospitals screened patients to identify those with MRSA. Other research has consistently found that hand hygiene compliance rates in hospitals are typically below 50 percent, according to Consumers Union.

"A national standard for prevention and disclosure of hospital acquired MRSA infections is needed to curb this epidemic," said Bill Vaughan, senior health policy analyst for Consumers Union. "This legislation will ensure that patients in every U.S. hospital are given the same protection against these sometimes deadly infections."

For more information on how to prevent MRSA, visit:

ar_mrsa_prevention.html or:

ar_mrsa_ca_prevention.html

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