Medical Grand Rounds

Staphylococcus aureus: The new adventures of a legendary pathogen

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ABSTRACTNosocomial infections with strains of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) began to emerge in the 1960s, are increasing in frequency, and tend to have worse outcomes than infections due to methicillin-susceptible S aureus. Community-associated MRSA infections emerged in the 1990s. Community-associated MRSA strains have up to now been epidemiologically and bacteriologically distinct from hospital-associated MRSA strains, but in a new twist, MRSA strains that have so far been only community-associated are invading the hospital. Another worrisome trend is increasing resistance to vancomycin (Vancocin).


  • Community-associated MRSA infections tend to affect patients younger than those who traditionally get hospital-associated MRSA infections. Most of these infections are of the skin and soft tissues, but this pathogen can also affect deeper tissues, and bacteremia and necrotizing pneumonia have been reported.
  • For patients with skin and soft-tissue infections due to MRSA, incision and drainage rather than antibiotic therapy is often the key intervention.
  • Vancomycin has been our stalwart for treating MRSA infections for more than 40 years, but it is not working as well as it used to, at least in certain situations. Vancomycin should not be used to treat infections due to methicillin-susceptible S aureus.
  • Needed are better understanding of the factors that influence persistent S aureus bacteremia, well-controlled, prospective studies, and continued antibiotic development.



Staphylococcus aureus is rearing its ugly head in new and interesting ways, both in the hospital and in the community.

Rates of invasive infections with methicillin-resistant S aureus (MRSA) have been increasing both in the hospital and in the community, a trend that has attracted considerable interest in the lay media. Curiously, the most common community-associated MRSA strain, which up to now has been distinct from hospital-associated MRSA strains, is invading our hospitals. Alarmingly, vancomycin (Vancocin), the drug of last resort for MRSA infections for the past 40 years, does not seem to be as effective as it used to be.

This paper summarizes the changing epidemiology of S aureus , particularly the emergence of MRSA outside of the hospital; reviews the difficulties associated with S aureus bacteremia and its treatment in view of; some changes in vancomycin susceptibility; and appraises the old and new treatment options.


S aureus , a gram-positive, coagulase-positive bacterium, is one of the leading nosocomial bloodstream pathogens, second only to coagulase-negative staphylococci. 1 And the incidence of S aureus infections is increasing. MRSA in particular is increasingly causing infections throughout hospitals, including intensive care units. As of 2004, nearly two-thirds of isolates of S aureus from intensive care units were MRSA. 2

MRSA infections are worse than methicillin-susceptible S aureus (MSSA) infections in terms of the rates of death and other undesirable outcomes. 3 Several factors may be responsible: MRSA infection may be a marker of severity of illness (sicker patients may be more likely to have MRSA), our treatment for MRSA may not be as effective as it is for MSSA, and the organism may be inherently more virulent.


Community-associated MRSA began emerging clinically about 10 years ago. It was first described in a cohort of children with necrotizing pneumonia in Minnesota, but soon other populations at risk began to emerge, such as residents of correctional facilities, men who had sex with men, competitive athletes (eg, fencers, wrestlers, and football players), and Alaskan natives and other native populations. A common factor in all these groups was close proximity of the members to each other. Later, it began to spread beyond these traditional risk groups into the community at large.

Community-associated MRSA strains have a characteristic pattern of antimicrobial susceptibility (see below). In the laboratory, they grow somewhat faster than health-care-associated MRSA strains, but not as fast as MSSA. They have a strong association with skin and soft-tissue infections: when you see a skin or soft-tissue infection, be it in an outpatient or an inpatient, think about MRSA. Their virulence varies, but rapid onset and progression of illness are quite common. Their most common strain in the United States at present is USA 300.

Case 1: A young woman with necrotizing fasciitis

A 21-year-old college student presented to our service in May 2004 with high fever and severe arm pain, which had been worsening for several days. She had been previously healthy, had not had any contact with the health care system, and had not received any antibiotics.


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