A virulent new strain of MRSA is spreading through the community and poses a particular threat to children and young adults, specialists have warned.
Two people have died from the new strain of the superbug, including a physically fit young soldier who grazed his leg while out running in Devon and a woman who caught the infection at a gym.
The seriousness of the threat was underlined by the Government's chief inspector of microbiology, Professor Brian Duerden. Public health laboratories were monitoring the situation and urgent consideration was being given to a survey to establish the prevalence of the new strain in the population, he said.
The experts were speaking in advance of a seminar for MPs, Lords and healthcare professionals on the growing problem of bacterial infections and antibiotic resistance.
The dangerous strain of MRSA carries a toxin-producing gene - known as PVL - that makes it more virulent and invasive than other varieties. The toxin destroys tissue, can cause boils up to 3in (10cm) across, and in rare cases spreads to the lungs causing pneumonia and death.
The soldier who was infected, Richard Campbell Smith, 18, a Royal Marine, died two days after scratching his legs on gorse during a run on Woodbury Common last October. PVL has also infected a touring rugby team, which contracted boils and skin infections, and at least 100 users of gyms and health clubs, including a 28-year-old woman who died.
MRSA is carried on the skin of healthy people and can be transmitted by skin-to-skin contact. The bugs do not usually cause problems in those with healthy immune systems, but the PVL strain is more toxic.
Children are at special risk because they are more likely to fall and scratch themselves, allowing the bug to enter the bloodstream. Infection control specialists warned parents to wash wounds with soap and water, which destroys the bug, and cover them.
Evidence from the US shows that prevalence of the PVL strain has soared since 1998, when the first cluster of cases was identified in North Dakota. Four children died.
Mark Enright, a microbiologist at the University of Bath who is collaborating with US colleagues on research into the new strain, said: "We have had shockingly large numbers [of carriers of the toxin-producing strain] in adults and children [in the US]. It has come from nowhere to very high rates. We need to know if we are going to have a problem in healthy young people in the UK."
A preliminary check of samples collected in 2002-03 in the UK had shown that 1.6 per cent had the PVL toxin-producing strain. "But that is an old figure based on a haphazard sample. We have no idea of the real rate," Dr Enright said.
The PVL strain of Staphylococcus aureus was first identified in the 1930s and accounted for 60 per cent of all staph infections prior to 1960. It was almost eliminated by the introduction of the antibiotic methicillin in 1961, but has since had a resurgence linked to the growth of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. Researchers in San Francisco studying the PVL strain collected 6,000 cases in a year when they had expected 200. "The message is that it happened very quickly and unexpectedly," Dr Enright said. The UK rate might be low now, "but that could change rapidly".Reuse content