Maryn McKenna decodes the MRSA superbug

After spending more than a decade reporting on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Maryn McKenna knows plenty of ways we could all die terrible deaths, compliments of nature’s craftiest single-celled organisms. Her coverage of anthrax, polio, bird flu and MRSA eventually earned her the nickname “Scary Disease Girl.”

MRSA bacteria magnified 4780 times. | Image courtesy of the CDC

McKenna channeled that experience into two books, the most recent of which is Superbug: The Fatal Menace of MRSA. It chronicles the emergence of Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus in the modern world and how it became an epidemic. She also blogs for Wired Science’s Superbug.

As a journalist who specializes in the terrifying, McKenna said she’s always careful to balance the appalling details with the empowering facts to educate people about their risks and how to protect themselves.

“People like to be scared, in sort of the same way they like to go to horror movies,” McKenna told me when I caught up with her at ScienceOnline 2011 in Durham, N.C. “On the one hand, I can rely on there being a consistent audience for tales of diseases that sneak up on us and things that make your face melt, things that make you melt from the inside. On the other hand, I have the responsibility as a journalist not to make people so frightened that they will be paralyzed or they will not take steps in their own defense or mischaracterize their own risk.”

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