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Progress on deadly staph infections slows; CDC calls for increased prevention

(CNN) More than 119,000 people were diagnosed with bloodstream Staphylococcus aureus infections in the United States in 2017, and almost 20,000 died -- a significant slowing in the previously declining rates of infections with the bacteria.

From 2005 to 2013, the rates of methicillin-resistant staph aureus (MRSA) bloodstream infections diagnosed in hospitals declined on average 17.1% every year. But no significant change in the rates of infection has been observed since, according to the report, released Tuesday by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"We think that while individual hospitals, health care facilities, communities, and certainly the VA system may be continuing to make progress, the national plateau that we are seeing probably stems from dropping off in using the intensive [CDC infection control] recommendations," said Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the CDC.

Staphylococcus aureus, known as staph, is a bacteria commonly found on the skin and in the noses of healthy people. Staph is either methicillin-sensitive staph aureus (MSSA) or methicillin-resistant staph aureus. MSSA bacteria respond to a class of antibiotics known as beta-lactam antibiotics -- including methicillin, penicillin, oxacillin and amoxicillin -- and MRSA bacteria do not. Both MRSA and MSSA can cause skin infections, bloodstream infections, sepsis and even death.

"Staph infections are a serious threat and can be deadly," CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield said in a news release. "U.S. hospitals have made significant progress, but this report tells us that all staph infections must remain a prevention priority for healthcare providers."

People at greatest risk for serious staph infections include those who stay in health care facilities or who have surgery, those who have medical devices placed in their bodies, those who inject drugs or those who are in close contact with someone who has staph.

In addition to being transmitted in the hospital, MRSA can occur in the community. According to the report, the rates of decline for MRSA diagnosis in communities across the country are even smaller: 6.9% annually from 2005 to 2016. The rates of MSSA infections in the community, on the other hand, are on the rise -- increasing on average 3.9% per year, according to the report.

In 2016, 9% of all serious staph infections occurred in people who inject drugs, up from 4% in 2011, according to the CDC. The authors suggest that the increase in staph infections in the community might be linked to the nation's opioid crisis.

The authors also urge health care providers to protect patients by implementing CDC recommendations such as the use of gloves and gowns, continually reviewing their facility infection data and discussing additional interventions if infection reduction goals are not met.

"We know infection prevention and control works but it's not one-size-fits-all," Dr. Athena Kourtis, associate director for data activities in the CDC's Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion, said in a news release. Additional strategies "may be needed in certain circumstances and patients, to ensure optimal prevention and the best outcome for the patients."