In today’s New York Times, columnist Nicholas Kristof turns his attention to a problem that’s been worrying the public health community for the past several years: MRSA, or methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus. The bacteria’s antibiotic resistance makes it hard to fight, and it’s responsible for a growing toll of deaths over the past year – including several among otherwise healthy people.

Kristof focuses on Camden, Indiana, a small farm town where family doctor Tom Anderson recently became alarmed by the number of MRSA infections he was seeing:

He began seeing strange rashes on his patients, starting more than a year ago. They began as innocuous bumps — “pimples from hell,” he called them — and quickly became lesions as big as saucers, fiery red and agonizing to touch.

They could be anywhere, but were most common on the face, armpits, knees and buttocks. Dr. Anderson took cultures and sent them off to a lab, which reported that they were MRSA, or staph infections that are resistant to antibiotics.

MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) sometimes arouses terrifying headlines as a “superbug” or “flesh-eating bacteria.” The best-known strain is found in hospitals, where it has been seen regularly since the 1990s, but more recently different strains also have been passed among high school and college athletes. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that by 2005, MRSA was killing more than 18,000 Americans a year, more than AIDS.

Dr. Anderson at first couldn’t figure out why he was seeing patient after patient with MRSA in a small Indiana town. And then he began to wonder about all the hog farms outside of town. Could the pigs be incubating and spreading the disease?

Recent research has suggested that hog farms might indeed be spreading MRSA to humans; check out the “pigs” category at Maryn McKenna’s incomparable Superbug blog to learn more about the various studies.

Kristof was about to visit Dr. Anderson, who had agreed to go public with his concerns and risk becoming very unpopular in his agricultural community, when Anderson died abruptly. He was 54, and a blood exam pointed to either a heart attack or aneurysm as the cause. Kristof notes that one study has linked MRSA to dangerous heart inflammation, and that Anderson had been stricken with the infection at least three times.

Kristof offers this broad lesson from one community’s sad story:

The larger question is whether we as a nation have moved to a model of agriculture that produces cheap bacon but risks the health of all of us. And the evidence, while far from conclusive, is growing that the answer is yes.

He promises that his next column will focus on the routine use of antibiotics in livestock operations. Most of us in the public health community don’t need to be convinced that this is a dangerous practice that should end. The question is, are people worried enough about MRSA to stand up to the livestock industry?