Scientists have identified a new superbug in a Brazilian patient that falls within the methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) class and is thought to spread by skin contact. The team of scientists led by Dr. Cesar A. Arias of the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston warned the new MRSA superbug has the ability to invade the bloodstream and might affect healthy people as well as those who are sick or have compromised immune systems. “This is the first-ever reported bloodstream infection caused by a highly vancomycin-resistant MRSA bacteria,” Arias said. His report appears in The New England Journal of Medicine.

Bacterial Infections

Generally, infection with S. aureus bacteria (a staph infection) causes no problems or results in relatively minor skin irritations. But a simple staph infection can turn deadly if the bacteria enter your bloodstream, joints, bones, lungs, or heart. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in three people carry staph in their nose, usually without any illness, while two in 100 people carry MRSA. Anyone can get MRSA through direct contact with an infected wound or by sharing personal items, such as towels or razors, that have touched infected skin.

MRSA is a class of highly-resistant bacteria and a major cause of hospital and community-associated infections. The newly identified superbug has already acquired high levels of resistance to vancomycin, the most common and least expensive antibiotic prescribed when treating severe MRSA infections. The team and Arias, an associate professor of medicine, microbiology, and molecular genetics, say there’s even worse news: Their analyses revealed that the new superbug belongs to a genetic line commonly found outside hospitals. Such community-associated MRSA can disseminate rapidly within a population, spreading from person to person through skin contact alone, scientists believe.

In fact, community-associated MRSA is responsible for the majority of skin and soft tissue infections (sores) in patients of all ages. Although some are not serious, some of these infections can become fatal. Add to that the fact that the new superbug may affect healthy individuals as well as sick, with the ability to invade the bloodstream and may become a serious threat. “This is the first-ever reported bloodstream infection caused by a highly vancomycin-resistant MRSA bacteria,” Arias said in a press release.

Arias and his colleagues recovered the MRSA superbug from the blood of a 35-year-old Brazilian man. Through a microbiological and genetic analysis, the scientists identified a unique transferable element carrying the genes necessary for vancomycin resistance (vanA gene cluster). However, the team cautioned, it is too early to tell what this specific superbug might lead to since this is the single documented case of this type of infection.

“There will have to be increased surveillance in South America and worldwide in the future,” concluded Dr. Barbara E. Murray, co-author and director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the UTHealth Medical School.

Source: Rossi F, Diaz L, Arias CA, et al. Transferable Vancomycin Resistance in a Community-Associated MRSA Lineage. New England Journal of Medicine. 2014.