Story transcripts

Germ Warfare

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Reporter: Peter Overton

Producer: Paul Steindl

We've all heard the horror stories. Hospitals crawling with super bugs, patients in for routine surgery who die from dreadful infections.

That's bad enough.

But even tougher, more sophisticated, bacteria are at large in the community.

They're everywhere and the really frightening thing is just how swiftly they can strike.

One day you're quite healthy, the next you're fighting for your life.

Age is no barrier.

The old, the young, the very young.

There's now solid research that suggests a quarter of all sudden infant deaths (SIDs) could be caused by these superbugs.

And, in many cases, there's nothing we can do to stop them.

Story Contacts:

For more information on MRSA, click here

More Information: Superbug overlooked as factor in SIDS deaths

Full transcript:


JULIE GRAY: "Dear Reis, I miss you so very much. "I miss your smile, I miss your energy and I miss your soul. "I miss you. Love Mum." They're helium balloons, we tie messages of love. Like I continuously think about Reis, he's there. He... He was an extraordinary character and his and his absence is extremely significant.

PETER OVERTON: This would have been Reis Gray's 18th birthday. Early this month, mum, Julie, and his family were left to celebrate only the memory of this strapping young man.

JULIE GRAY: Over six foot, strong, healthy and I think this was something that Reis had on his... always had on his side - was his health.

PETER OVERTON: But a little over year ago, Reis woke up feeling like he had a slight flu.

JULIE GRAY: He was feeling fairly off but said that he felt much better on the Thursday.

PETER OVERTON: Overnight he got worse and by Friday Reis was in hospital fighting for his life.

JULIE GRAY: So I went to him and he said, "Mum, am I going to be alright?" And I said, "Of course you are, sweetheart." You know, "I love you" and I kissed him and and they put him to sleep and when I said "Of course you are sweetheart" I genuinely believed with every part of me that he would be OK. But he wasn't, no.

PETER OVERTON: Reis never woke up. His system had been overwhelmed, consumed by a toxic superbug at terrifying speed.

JULIE GRAY: We' talking about a child, a young man, that was in the prime of his life. It was like a little Pacman, if you if you can think of that, eating, just eating and it just ate his lungs.

PETER OVERTON: Golden staph infections became notorious when they started taking over hospitals and places where antibiotics were overused. But the frightening new truth is that beefed up superbugs, like the one that killed Reis, are raining down on all of us. Infecting people in the general community who've never been near a hospital or nursing home. How potent is that dish of bacteria?

DR RONAN MURRAY: If I were to put this on your skin probably nothing would happen because a lot of us carry this organism on our skin around us. If I injected this into your blood you would probably get very sick and possibly die.

PETER OVERTON: That stark?

DR RONAN MURRAY: Mmm. It's a killer.

PETER OVERTON: This killer is a bug known as 'community MRSA' and Dr Ronan Murray, Head of Infectious Diseases at Royal Perth Hospital is deeply alarmed by its rapid spread into the general population.

DR RONAN MURRAY: For about the past 15 years, we've been seeing more and more of these infections occurring in the community in people with no contact with hospitals whatsoever. What we can see is that this bacteria, which is a staphylococcus aureus is resistant to methicillin, so it's an MRSA.

PETER OVERTON: How can you tell it's resistant?

DR RONAN MURRAY: the bug grows right up to the disc here which contains antibiotics, so that means that the bug is not killed by that antibiotic.

PETER OVERTON: The MRSA superbugs are always adapting and growing ever stronger. Like the one that killed Reis. It had coated itself with a deadly toxin known as PVL like a coat of armour to protect it against our immune system and antibiotics.

DR RONAN MURRAY: This is a CAT-scan of somebody with community MRSA infection in the lungs. And what were seeing here is the lungs are being completely destroyed by this PVL toxin that this bacteria produces.

PETER OVERTON: This is a healthy set of lungs with no disease. But this is how Reis's lungs would have looked after being infected for just 48 hours. The bug has eaten the lung. The bug is smarter and stronger than any drug that you could introduce?

DR RONAN MURRAY: Once it gets to this stage, yes.

PETER OVERTON: Do you respect the bug?

DR RONAN MURRAY: I fear it and I respect it.

PETER OVERTON: How often is this happening?

DR RONAN MURRAY: It's becoming more common. It's becoming more frequent. There's absolutely no doubt about it.

PETER OVERTON: Where were you amputated from?

ANDREW BALLENTYNE: It was basically at the hip. I mean they took the bone out of the hip joint.

PETER OVERTON: Andrew Ballentyne is proof that these bugs are spreading in the general community. ESTHER: The Saturday that they took his leg off they gave us about a 5% chance, by the Sunday he was down to 0% chance.

PETER OVERTON: Of living? ESTHER: Of living at all.

PETER OVERTON: Once again, youth and good health were no barrier. One day planning his wedding to Esther, the next, rushed to hospital with a mystery illness. ESTHER: There was a little red dot, a red spot, just above his knee.

ANDREW BALLENTYNE: It was very, very tender. it was it was more pain than I ever remember feeling before but there was not really much to see for it at that stage.

PETER OVERTON: Esther watched in horror as her fiance's body was ravaged by the superbug. ESTHER: Andy said, "Don't be scared but look at my leg." And I've gone, 'OK', pulled back the blankets and his leg was black from knee to hip. It was black.

ANDREW BALLENTYNE: It entered my bloodstream and ended up in my thigh. Then started multiplying, killing muscle, destroying the bone or getting into the bone, pumping out toxins that shut down all the organs in my body.

PETER OVERTON: Andrew's memory of that weekend is sketchy.

ANDREW BALLENTYNE: They usually only let two people into ICU at a time, but they'd let everyone in which means it's breaking all the rules because, I think, it's, you know, the last chance to say goodbye essentially.

PETER OVERTON: In a desperate bid to save his life, doctors removed Andrew's leg and most of his hip.

ANDREW BALLENTYNE: They had to make sure that bug was was cut out, essentially, and that the the flesh was dead. They didn't want it spreading any further. It had actually entered that bone in my hip, so that was the the only thing they could do.

PETER OVERTON: To illustrate just what happened to Andrew's leg, here's what a similar bug did to an ankle. It just, what, ate the bone?

DR RONAN MURRAY: It ate the bone, yeah. By the time we diagnosed this infection, it was too late to save her ankle with antibiotics and she had to have an amputation.

PETER OVERTON: In Andrew's case because the infection could be isolated and cut out, the bug was defeated. and the victory celebrated the following week when Andrew and Esther went ahead with their planned wedding. So you spent the wedding night in a hospital ward, Esther? ESTHER: On the recliner chair. Wasn't really my four-poster...

PETER OVERTON: In a 5 star hotel.

ANDREW BALLENTYNE: The honeymoon suite as they named it after that.

PETER OVERTON: There are now over 30 strains of community MRSA present in Australia, some more toxic than others. Many start in remote areas with poor health conditions but travel quickly to cities.

DR RONAN MURRAY: This is the way the organism spread from place to place. It spreads on us.

PETER OVERTON: So it could be handshake, it could be sitting on a seat from someone who's travelled in to a capital city?

DR RONAN MURRAY: That's right, that's right. Any any personal contact at all can transmit this organism.

PETER OVERTON: It's not just adults and teenagers falling victim to the new superbugs. World-first Australian research is showing that staph infections are killing the most vulnerable in our community - babies. Many new-borns previously thought to have died of cot death may have, in fact, died because of these insidious bugs. Professor Paul Goldwater of Adelaide's Women's and Children's Hospital has discovered that a quarter of all SIDS babies have died with the bugs in their tiny systems.

PROFESSOR PAUL GOLDWATER: Those babies died of that infection without, without, without a doubt.

PETER OVERTON: So your saying a quarter of those babies died from something other than SIDS?


PETER OVERTON: As simple as that? An infection?

PROFESSOR PAUL GOLDWATER: As simple as that, yeah.

PETER OVERTON: Professor Goldwater says there are a few simple things that may protect your baby.

PROFESSOR PAUL GOLDWATER: SIDS babies are more likely to pick up these environmental organisms from sleeping surfaces such as sofas, which is a very dangerous surface on which to put a baby to sleep. If they're placed prone, they may be more likely to ingest or acquire the organism, the bug.

PETER OVERTON: But in most cases, doctors have no idea where the deadly disease springs from.

JAN SKALLY: Yes, that was taken on Christmas day, just three weeks before he died.

PETER OVERTON: Jan Skally was living happily with her husband Ed till their life was invaded by a rogue bug.

JAN SKALLY: You can see by the grin on his face, he was sitting in the chair, saying, "For God sake, Jan, take the photo, hurry up.

PETER OVERTON: What hit Ed was the equivalent of a bacterial tsunami. He was a healthy 60 year old with his retirement ahead. He woke up one Friday morning feeling a little unwell but nothing serious till later that day.

JAN SKALLY: He just got progressively sicker during the night and by about 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning I.."Hey, I'm not waiting for the GP, "we're going straight into the hospital."

PETER OVERTON: Ed was admitted and Jan spoke to him briefly before the doctors took over. It was the last conversation she would ever have with him.

JAN SKALLY: By 3:00 in the morning, I think I knew that he was dying and that it was just time, it was just time with him.

PETER OVERTON: This happened in front of your eyes, a healthy man to a critically ill patient in no time.

JAN SKALLY: Critically ill to dying.

PETER OVERTON: Andrew Ballentyne is one of the lucky ones. He may have lost a leg to the superbug but his future is bright. 12 months after his life-saving surgery, he and Esther welcomed baby Joshua.

ANDREW BALLENTYNE: I think I would just like to get very good at this. I'm told it will take probably a couple of years to be really proficient.

PETER OVERTON: And try and keep up with Josh?


PETER OVERTON: These potent new bugs pose one of the greatest challenges for modern medicine - as well as stronger antibiotics. we need to develop vaccines against the ever-changing bacteria.

DR RONAN MURRAY: It is probably clever, if not more clever than we are and it's certainly an excellent survivor. History tells us that if we don't control this problem some time soon it is likely that this organism will continue to develop resistance to those second-line, third-line antibiotics. And it is possible that one day there will be organisms that we can no longer treat with antibiotics.

PETER OVERTON: That sounds frightening - antibiotics no longer effective. The bugs will win.

DR RONAN MURRAY: It's possible the bugs will win.

PETER OVERTON: It's a high stakes battle against a deadly relentless enemy and, as Julie Gray found, it shows no mercy.

JULIE GRAY: It is an extraordinary way to die. I never would have imagined that I would have lost a child to something that you can't even see. How do you fight something that you can't even see?

Search the site

7.30 pm Sunday