OSLO, Norway -- Aker University Hospital is a dingy place to heal. The floors are streaked and scratched. A light layer of dust coats the blood pressure monitors. A faint stench of urine and bleach wafts from a pile of soiled bedsheets dropped in a corner.
Look closer, however, at a microscopic level, and this place is pristine. There is no sign of a dangerous and contagious staph infection that killed tens of thousands of patients in the most sophisticated hospitals of Europe, North America and Asia this year, soaring virtually unchecked.
The reason: Norwegians stopped taking so many drugs.
Twenty-five years ago, Norwegians were also losing their lives to this bacteria. But Norway's public health system fought back with an aggressive program that made it the most infection-free country in the world. A key part of that program was cutting back severely on the use of antibiotics.
Now a spate of new studies from around the world prove that Norway's model can be replicated with extraordinary success, and public health experts are saying these deaths -- 19,000 in the U.S. each year alone, more than from AIDS -- are unnecessary.
"It's a very sad situation that in some places so many are dying from this, because we have shown here in Norway that Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) can be controlled, and with not too much effort," said Jan Hendrik-Binder, Oslo's MRSA medical adviser. "But you have to take it seriously, you have to give it attention, and you must not give up."
The World Health Organization says antibiotic resistance is one of the leading public health threats on the planet. A six-month investigation by The Associated Press found overuse and misuse of medicines has led to mutations in once curable diseases like tuberculosis and malaria, making them harder and in some cases impossible to treat.
Now, in Norway's simple solution, there's a glimmer of hope.
Dr. John Birger Haug shuffles down Aker's scuffed corridors, patting the pocket of his baggy white scrubs. "My bible," the infectious disease specialist says, pulling out a little red Antibiotic Guide that details this country's impressive MRSA solution.
It's what's missing from this book -- an array of antibiotics -- that makes it so remarkable.
"There are times I must show these golden rules to our doctors and tell them they cannot prescribe something, but our patients do not suffer more and our nation, as a result, is mostly infection free," he says.
Norway's model is surprisingly straightforward.
-- Norwegian doctors prescribe fewer antibiotics than any other country, so people do not have a chance to develop resistance to them.
-- Patients with MRSA are isolated and medical staff who test positive stay at home.
-- Doctors track each case of MRSA by its individual strain, interviewing patients about where they've been and who they've been with, testing anyone who has been in contact with them.
Haug unlocks the dispensary, a small room lined with boxes of pills, bottles of syrups and tubes of ointment. What's here? Medicines considered obsolete in many developed countries. What's not? Some of the newest, most expensive antibiotics, which aren't even registered for use in Norway, "because if we have them here, doctors will use them," he says.
He points to an antibiotic. "If I treated someone with an infection in Spain with this penicillin I would probably be thrown in jail," he says, "and rightly so because it's useless there."
Norwegians are sanguine about their coughs and colds, toughing it out through low-grade infections.
"We don't throw antibiotics at every person with a fever. We tell them to hang on, wait and see, and we give them a Tylenol to feel better," says Haug.
Convenience stores in downtown Oslo are stocked with an amazing and colorful array -- 42 different brands at one downtown 7-Eleven -- of soothing, but non-medicated, lozenges, sprays and tablets. All workers are paid on days they, or their children, stay home sick. And drug makers aren't allowed to advertise, reducing patient demands for prescription drugs.
In fact, most marketing here sends the opposite message: "Penicillin is not a cough medicine," says the tissue packet on the desk of Norway's MRSA control director, Dr. Petter Elstrom.
He recognizes his country is "unique in the world and best in the world" when it comes to MRSA. Less than 1 percent of health care providers are positive carriers of MRSA staph.
But Elstrom worries about the bacteria slipping in through other countries. Last year almost every diagnosed case in Norway came from someone who had been abroad.
"So far we've managed to contain it, but if we lose this, it will be a huge problem," he said. "To be very depressing about it, we might in some years be in a situation where MRSA is so endemic that we have to stop doing advanced surgeries, things like organ transplants, if we can't prevent infections. In the worst case scenario we are back to 1913, before we had antibiotics."