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The hospital ‘superbug’: social representations of MRSA

Washer, P.; Joffe, H.; (2006) The hospital ‘superbug’: social representations of MRSA. Social Science and Medicine , 63 (8) pp. 2141-2152. 10.1016/j.socscimed.2006.05.018. Green open access


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The so-called ‘hospital superbug’ methcillin resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) became a topic of media and political concern from the middle of the 1990’s. It was increasingly politicised in the period leading up to the British General Election of 2005. This study examines the meanings of MRSA that circulate in Britain by analysing newspaper coverage of the disease over a ten year period. It utilises social representations theory and contextualises MRSA within existing research on representations of emerging infectious diseases (EIDs). A key pattern in the representation of EIDs is to externalise the threat they pose by linking the origin, risk and blame to ‘the other’ of those who represent them. In this light the study investigates who and what MRSA is associated with and the impact that these associations have on levels of alarm and blame. Key findings are that MRSA is represented as a potentially lethal ‘superbug’, marking the end of a ‘golden age of medicine’ in which the story of the discovery of antibiotics has played such a key role. Furthermore, MRSA is constructed around an “it could be you / me” set of assumptions by way of the plethora of human interest stories that dominate the coverage. Finally, the blame for MRSA focuses not on its genesis, but rather on why it spreads. This is attributed to poor hygiene in hospitals, which is ultimately caused by mismanagement of the National Health Service and erosion of the authority and morality symbolised by the ‘matron’ role. This constellation of meanings speaks to a somewhat different pattern of response to MRSA when compared to many past EIDs.

Type: Article
Title: The hospital ‘superbug’: social representations of MRSA
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
DOI: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2006.05.018
Publisher version: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2006.05.018
Language: English
Keywords: MRSA, social representations, superbug, emerging infectious disease
UCL classification: ?? HAOA ??
URI: http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/2080
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