A 'sleeper' bacterium could become the next strain of antibiotic-resistant "super bacteria," and researchers say it's everywhere.
Scientists from the Milner Center for Evolution at the University of Bath said Staphylococcus epidermidis might soon elicit the same scare as MRSA and E. coli.
The bacteria is a close relative of MRSA, but because of its abundance, most doctors and physicians ignore it.
"Staphylococcus epidermidis is a deadly pathogen in plain sight," said Sam Sheppard, Director of Bioinformatics at the Milner Centre for Evolution at the University of Bath. Sheppard led the research.
Staphylococcus epidermidis, MRSA, and surgical risks
Like its close relative MRSA, Staphylococcus epidermidis can lead to red, swollen skin that's painful and warm to the touch. Most people assume they're spider bits and try to ignore it.
The skin can become riddled with pus or other bodily drainages. Fevers often accompany the infection.
While Staphylococcus epidermidis is present, researchers fear it could become as serious as MRSA. MRSA (or Staphylococcus aureus) is often referred to as the "golden cluster seed" for its spherical shape.
MRSA remains the most commons cause of staph infections. In the United States, over 90,000 Americans contract MRSA each year, and of them, 20,000 dies. Many of the deaths are children.
So why hasn't Staphylococcus epidermidis been studied as extensively as other deadly bacteria?
"It's always been ignored clinically because it's frequently been assumed that it was a contaminant in lab samples or it was simply accepted as a known risk of surgery," Sheppard explained.
One type of surgery, in particular, puts patients at a much higher risk than others: joint replacements.
Professor Dietrich Mack, from the Bioscientia Institute for Medical Diagnostics GmbH, Germany, said a common hip or knee replacement exposes patients to Staphylococcus epidermidis at a level that requires further study.
"Prosthetic joint replacement surgery helps many patients to live independent and pain-free lives, but can take a catastrophic course through S. epidermidis infection," Mack said.
"These infections are difficult to diagnose and there is hope that disease-associated genes may help to separate harmless skin isolates from disease-causing S. epidermidis strains in the clinical laboratory. This needs to be addressed in future studies," he continued.
MRSA, E. coli, and other related infections make up nearly a third of all deaths in the United Kingdom, Sheppard said, especially post-surgical infections.
"I believe we should be doing more to reduce the risk if we possibly can," Sheppard noted. "If we can identify who is most at risk of infection, we can target those patients with extra hygiene precautions before they undergo surgery."
He added: "Because the bug is so abundant, they can evolve very fast by swapping genes with each other."
Next steps for preventing a superbug outbreak
The University of Bath team hopes that by studying other related superbugs, doctors could establish best practices to protect their patients.
"If we do nothing to control this, there's a risk that these disease-causing genes could spread more widely, meaning post-operative infections that are resistant to antibiotics could become even more common," Sheppard said.
While researchers look for a way to out-maneuver these superbugs, they advised the public to wash hands and sheets frequently. Cover all wounds or cuts, and regularly discard all bandages and tape in proper waste bins.