By Fred Attewill
The bacteria are more virulent than the infamous hospital MRSA, can affect otherwise healthy people and are spreading across Britain. They can be transmitted through skin-to-skin contact and hugging as well as sneezing and coughing.
One strain, called USA300, can lead to blood poisoning or a form of pneumonia that eats away at lung tissue.
The bacteria are usually resistant to several types of antibiotics and can cause large boils on the skin.
Chris Williams, professor of molecular genetics at the University of Birmingham, said: ‘It breaks down tissue. If it gets into your heart, bacteria can get into your bloodstream and take hold of different parts of your body. That could lead to death quite easily.’
The dangers of the ‘community- acquired’ superbugs are raised in a new study, examining the way they spread. Researcher Dr Ruth Massey said USA300 was ‘causing huge problems in America and is being reported here increasingly’.
She added: ‘These community- acquired strains seem to be good at affecting healthy people – they seem to be much better than the hospital ones at causing disease.’
Dr Massey said there were 1,000 cases of so-called PVL-positive community-acquired MRSA in England in the last year, of which 200 were USA300 strains.
Prof Williams added: ‘If you’re on a crowded tube or bus and you sneeze you can spread the bacteria.
‘But your sneeze can also land on a metal surface and when someone else gets up from their seat and steadies themselves on the hand rail they can catch it.’
However, MRSA was also prevalent in the nose and the hair so might be spread by scratching the head and then shaking hands, he said.
The Health Protection Agency said it had been aware of the strains for more than a decade but it was ‘not a major public health issue in this country’.