Golden staph superbug infections in Hunter hospitals have jumped by almost a quarter this year and more people are contracting drug-resistant strains in the community.
Hunter New England Health data shows hospital staff treated 730 cases of the drug-resistant staph infection in the first four months of this year, up from 597 in 2011.
This includes 227 people treated at emergency departments, also up on last year.
General practitioners say the staph increase can be partly blamed on people asking for antibiotics for colds, because bacteria is adapting to survive.
A Hunter New England Health spokesman said there were no figures on golden staph infections, known officially as Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA), in the community because doctors did not have to report cases to authorities.
But emergency department figures suggest more people are acquiring the infections outside hospital walls.
MRSA – staph bacteria resistant to methicillin and other antibiotics – is found in hospitals. Some strains exist in the community and are spread more readily between healthy people. They are known as community-acquired MRSA infections.
The strains can take hold in illnesses ranging from infected insect bites to pneumonia.
Infections can be prevented through good personal hygiene, washing hands, covering broken skin and not sharing personal items such as towels and razors.
Symptoms include skin infections such as boils, abscesses and cellulitis, and infections of the bone, blood, lungs and other body parts.
Grades of infection range from minor skin infections to potentially fatal bloodstream infections, and people can more easily become infected where they are in close contact, such as in schools, sporting groups, prisons and military barracks.
Cases are typically treated by draining the infected area and administering strong antibiotics.
Hunter Urban Medicare Local executive officer Dr Mark Foster said reducing inappropriate antibiotic prescribing in the community would help limit the spread of resistant bacteria.
For a start, patients should not expect a prescription for a cold. It had no effect and only increased the risk of an adverse reaction.
‘‘Because everyone catches colds, reducing antibiotic use in the treatment of [colds] is a good place to begin,’’ he said.
A Hunter New England Health spokesman said hand washing in hospitals was the way to reduce the spread of bugs. He said hand hygiene statistics among hospital staff were well above national benchmarks.
The World Health Organisation warned recently of a return to the pre-antibiotic era if bacterial resistance to antibiotics continued unabated.
National Prescribing Service executive officer Dr Lynn Weekes it was important to raise the dangers of antibiotics misuse with patients.