More and more MRSA infections, also know as flesh bacteria, are developing resistance to antibiotics. This is a terrifying development that is taking rise in the US and across the world. Below is the story of one girl’s battle with a flesh-eating superbug that persisted to resurface, despite years of taking antibiotics.
In the summer after my first year of college, I was living it up, like many 19-year-olds do. I took an internship in Washington, D.C., where I could get lost in a maze of people and discover myself all at once. In those first few weeks, I made friends, navigated relationships, and even shared an almost magical moment with a 31-year-old painter who wooed me in a deep Spanish voice. It was a summer of whimsies—that is, until a flesh bacteria entered the picture.
In the dog days of July, I sat in the bathroom picking at what I thought to be a stubborn ingrown hair in my bikini line and worrying whether it could be disguised amidst the pink polka dots on my new bathing suit. As I dug away at it, blood poured out, but the hair never budged.
Within days, it mutated into a raging boil. I sucked up all my fears of backless gowns and prodding gloves and trudged off to the doctor. There, the defect was squeezed and sampled. A staph infection, they suspected, but they’d know more after the results of the culture were in. I was sent home with a common antibiotic in hand.
Unmasking the Villain
The next day, I was on a plane headed for a small countryside town in Slovakia. My internship had swept me off to this faraway land to fight the good fight against a looming uranium mining operation. Armed with a clipboard and petíciu, I had the power to help thwart a corporate project that could ravage a community. However, I was feeling rather ravaged myself—no matter how many of those pills I popped, the infection festered. And I was miles away from my health insurance network and cell service.
My thighs were covered in sores that spiraled into crimson rings the size of softballs by the time I returned home. As soon as the service bars on my cell phone lit up, I received a week-old voicemail. My infection wasn’t just ordinary staph, which hangs out harmlessly on the skin and in the nasal canals of about a third of the population. This bug, in the style of a villain out of a comic book, was a superbug. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, was its name. And it was triumphing over the very antibiotics designed to eradicate it. That’s because, due to a worldwide antibiotic resistance epidemic, many everyday antibiotics no longer work.
MRSA, when left untreated for too long, can be fatal. In the United States, the number of annual deaths associated with staph often rivals that of AIDS-related deaths. In the weeks and months after my diagnosis, I learned of a flurry of other cases, mostly in schools nearby my home state of Virginia. That past October, a high school senior in Moneta died after a week of battling a MRSA infection, and a handful of other students were infected. Officials cited the unsanitary restroom facilities as a possible source and shut down schools for cleaning.
With my phone pressed against my ear and my laptop on a CDC page containing stats on MRSA hospitalizations and deaths, I erupted into sobs. After fetching my new antibiotics, which the doctors claimed would kill the demon inside me, I spent the afternoon pacing around the intern house and blubbering intermittently. My peers stared on with raised eyebrows, as though I were a ticking time bomb.
Considering the nearly three-week span that had passed between my initial symptoms and my treatment, I was lucky. The antibiotics squelched the infection within a week, and it never had the chance to penetrate my bloodstream and cause sepsis, as it does in thousands of patients every year. I sighed with relief, figuring the only harm done was to my psyche, as the boils and the purple battle scars they’d left behind would cause me to miss out on swimsuit season that year.
The Birth of a Bacterial Army
But it wasn’t over. Not even a month later, more boils erupted on the backs of my thighs. Another course of the same antibiotic, another success. And then it happened again. And again. And again. The next two years of college, I spent more time on antibiotics than off them until eventually doctors put me on a perpetual low dose to keep the infection at bay. Every time I’d taper off, MRSA would course back through me with a vengeance.
I became accustomed to sitting on my hips in class to avoid agitating the painful sores. I holed up in my room, not daring to whisper a word to my neighbors in fear that I might be roped off with yellow caution tape and declared a biohazard. During the one time in my life I should have been bending the rules and treating boundaries like jump ropes, I cowered inside an invisible box.
Bacteria are always evolving. Unlike the rest of us, millions of generations of bacteria are born in a flash of our lives, allowing tiny genetic mutations to take hold within months or years. Our usage of antibiotics has perhaps landed us in a catch-22. As doctors prescribe more and more of them to fight strep, staph, syphilis, and a slew of other ailments, the surviving bacteria fight back. Those that trump the meds are the fittest, in Darwinian terms, and they multiply like rabbits. Hence, the birth of antibiotic-resistant superbugs.
MRSA was first discovered decades ago in hospitals, occurring primarily in patients who’d undergone major procedures like surgeries or had compromised immune systems. By the 1980’s, though, cases had sprouted in the community, contracted via locker rooms, cramped living quarters, and unsanitary restrooms. I’ve always tiptoed around those environments, but somehow, still, that pesky ingrown hair managed to rendezvous with an opportunistic bacterium, and the rest was history. The strain I contracted is harbored on the skin of less than two percent of the population, but even in most of those people, it remains asymptomatic. My skin and various orifices were swabbed several times throughout my ordeal with MRSA, each time coming up negative for lingering bacteria.
Meaty Mischief and Mayhem
To this day, I have no answers as to why MRSA haunted me over and over again for three years.
But I wanted to point fingers. In the public arena, MRSA and other superbugs have forced a dialogue about our dependence on and overuse of antibiotics. After contracting the illness, I began to scrutinize doctors every time they touched the pen to the pad. Then, however, I learned that there’s another industry entirely that’s consuming 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in this country, and that’s the farming industry.
Antibiotics are given to farmed animals who live in filthy, cramped barns by the thousands to feed America’s meat infatuation. On these factory farms, diseases could and should run rampant, but farmers administer antibiotics as a means of prevention. It’s a superbug’s paradise. In fact, in 2013, researchers studying MRSA infections in Pennsylvania found that people living in the vicinity of pig farms had a significantly greater likelihood of becoming infected than those who didn’t. And it’s not just the leakage of animal feces into the surrounding environment; several recent studies have found MRSA in raw meat samples around the country.
That’s why some meat companies are now boasting about antibiotic-free products, figuring they’ll skirt the issue altogether. The massive hamburger chain Carl’s Jr. recently jumped on the bandwagon, with this year’s Super Bowl commercial proudly announcing the chain’s new antibiotic-free meat. Of course, they couldn’t leave out the barely-clothed supermodel whose assets, allegedly, were “all-natural,” just like the burgers.
Triumph or Defeat?
But MRSA isn’t sexy, and neither is America’s meat infatuation. The country’s sky-high per capita meat consumption hovers around 270 pounds yearly, making any system other than the ultra-efficient factory farming seem far-fetched. But can we afford to keep pumping animals full of drugs? With pigs constricted for years in metal stalls and chickens crammed 10 to a cage, can we afford not to? Perhaps it’s that demand—and the system itself—that we should be compelled to reconsider.
As for me, well, when I couldn’t bear to treat myself like a leper any longer, I broke out of that invisible box and lived beyond the pain and the embarrassment. I lived louder and deeper than I had before. And finally, one day, instead of refilling my antibiotics, I dared to discontinue them.
Today, my skin is clear. My heartbeat is strong. MRSA never returned, but every now and then, when I step foot into a gym locker room in flip flops or sleep in a seedy motel bed, I wonder. I wonder if I’ll ever have another night wailing in pain from the sores or another summer in sweatpants, my self-esteem gutted. As long as the war of antibiotic resistance wages, I’ll always wonder.
Laura Lee Cascada is a freelance writer and editor based out of Richmond, Virginia. She has a master’s degree in environmental policy from the Johns Hopkins University and has worked at nonprofits from the Sierra Club to PETA to protect animals and our world. She spends her free time working on her debut novel, advocating for hermit crabs, crafting porcine-themed accessories, traveling the globe, and eating copious amounts of avocados. Keep tabs on her here.
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