Friday, October 26, 2007

MRSA: Bacterium poses small risk if caught early

MRSA: Bacterium poses small risk if caught early

BY CHRIS A. COUROGEN / Of The Patriot-News, 10/24/07 10:20 PM EDTUPDATED: 10/25/07 10:14 AM EDT

MRSA — “superbug” or too much hype?

The drug-resistant bacterial infection has been dominating the headlines and feeding anxiety in schools, gyms and health care facilities across the nation.

The buzz began last week when a Journal of the American Medical Association study announced methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus — a staph infection — was responsible for more deaths each year in the U.S. than the AIDS virus.

Schools across the country began ordering disinfectant after last week’s death of a 17-year-old Virginia student.

The bacteria made news in the midstate this week when a Harrisburg School District seventh-grader was sent home after officials found out he had been diagnosed with MRSA. The boy was being treated with medication and a doctor’s note cleared him to return to class. District officials still kept him out on Wednesday after scrubbing down the Lincoln Elementary School Tuesday night.

While health experts stress that MRSA is serious, the vast majority of deaths caused by the staph infection are among people who contracted it in health care facilities.

“It is appropriate for the public to be concerned, but not fearful,” said Dr. Gregory M. Caputo, who heads the infection control team at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.

Stacy Friedman, a spokeswoman for the state Health Department, agreed.

“What we want to stress is, it’s not only very preventable, it is very treatable,” said Friedman.

Closing down schools for cleaning and disinfecting “is really not necessary,” she said.

The district took cautionary steps that went beyond what health authorities advised.

“There has been so much in the press about MRSA. We wanted to be sure we were being as careful as we can be,” said Julie Botel, Harrisburg School District deputy superintendent.

“The truth of the matter is, the Centers for Disease Control and the PA Department of Health both told us it was not necessary to send him home,’’ Botel said. “In fact, they told us it was not necessary to clean the building.”

Harrisburg is not the only local school dealing with MRSA.

In Lancaster County, an elementary school student returned to class Monday in the Hempfield School District after being treated for MRSA. A student in Franklin County’s Greencastle-Antrim School District last week was diagnosed with the bacteria. While school officials there wouldn’t release any other information, they said all the district’s buildings would be cleaned.

And the Lebanon Daily News reports a Northern Lebanon High School student had surgery for an advanced case of the disease in September. The paper said the district’s superintendant was unaware of the case. Calls to the school district for comment were not returned.

Outside of health care facilities, MRSA is typically transmitted by direct skin-to-skin contact, according to the CDC.

Practicing good hygiene — washing with soap and water or an alcohol-based sanitizer, showering after exercise workouts, covering open wounds and not sharing personal items such as razors and towels — helps prevent infection.

Normal proper cleaning procedures are sufficient to combat MRSA, according to the CDC. Students and staff who become infected need not be isolated or sent home, as long as they are being treated and any wounds are properly covered.

“Concern is the appropriate response. Fear and panic are not the appropriate response,” said Caputo of the CDC. “It is not among the most common of fatal conditions or the most common community acquired conditions, such as flu or pneumonia. That puts it into perspective.”

The death rate from getting MRSA outside a health care facility is 0.5 per 100,000, according to the medical association study.

The key is to seek treatment early, before the infection spreads to the bloodstream, Caputo said. Although resistant to penicillin-related drugs, MRSA can be treated effectively and cured with other antibiotics.

Infections caused by staph bacteria, including MRSA, are manifested as skin infections that might look like spider bites, boils or pimples. Often they are sore to the touch, red and swollen, with pus or other drainage, according to the CDC.

There is no accurate measure of MRSA cases in the state. Health care institutions are not required to report it. Hospitals and long term care facilities will begin reporting MRSA infections acquired in their facilities next year under a recently passed Prescription for Pa., but that law does not mandate reporting of community acquired MRSA cases.

Both Friedman and Caputo welcomed the heightened awareness of MRSA that has come from the new study.

“It is a good opportunity to stress the importance of good personal hygiene,” Friedman said.

Very true, Botel said.

“There really is a silver lining going into the flu season,” Botel said. “It is good that our kids’ awareness is heightened about the importance of hand washing and good hygiene.”
CHRIS A. COUROGEN: 717-255-8112 or


The drug-resistant germ methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, sometimes first appears on the skin as a red, swollen pimple or boil that might be painful or have pus. It can be spread by skin-to skin contact or by touching surfaces contaminated with the germ.


bacteria enters skin through a cut or a small break.
It’s spread by skin-to-skin contact

it becomes more severe if it enters the bloodstream.


Avoid sharing personal items such as towels, sheets, razors, clothing and athletic equipment.

Keep wounds covered with sterile, dry bandages until they heal. Pus from infected sores often contains MRSA, and keeping wounds covered will help keep it from spreading.

Sanitize linens and wash gym and athletic clothes after each wearing.

Wash your hands. Scrub hands briskly for at least 15 seconds, then dry them with a disposable towel and use another towel to turn off the faucet. Carry a small bottle of hand sanitizer containing at least 62 percent alcohol.

Get tested. If you have a skin infection requiring treatment, ask if you should be tested for MRSA.

Source: Mayo Clinic