MRSA — Epidemic or Media Storm?

Schools across the country are reacting to the recent news coverage about Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA), a biological agent responsible for difficult-to-treat infections in humans. In the past, most reported MRSA cases were related to hospital stays — that is until now. Here are a few of the incidents that recently received the national attention.

  • A student from Bedford County (VA), hospitalized for more than a week with an antibiotic-resistant staph infection died, prompting county school officials to close all 21 of its schools for a thorough cleaning.
  • Chesterfield County (VA) school officials say three football players at James River High School have been treated recently for staph infections.
  • Nearly two dozen students were reported to have infections at schools in Anne Arundel County (MD).
  • Mesa, AZ schools confirm“superbug” cases.
  • Last week, a football player at Port Townsend High School (WA) was diagnosed with MRSA, prompting school officials to close down the school gym and weight room and cancel the final football game of the year.
  • Schools in Pike County (KY) were closed Monday so that crews could clean the schools in an effort to prevent the spread of a drug-resistant staph infection.
  • New York City health officials revealed that a 12-year-old middle school student in Brooklyn had died after contracting a MRSA infection.

So is MRSA an epidemic, or a media storm? MRSA is not new — it’s news. It was first identified in the early 1960s, and has long been a concern in the healthcare industry. While serious, it is treatable and, for the most part, preventable. According to the Center for Disease Control, almost all MRSA skin infections can be effectively treated by drainage of pus, with or without antibiotics. More serious infections, such as pneumonia, bloodstream infections, or bone infections, are very rare in healthy people who get MRSA skin infections. The key is proper identification and medical treatment.

MRSA is usually transmitted by direct skin-to-skin contact, or contact with shared items or surfaces that have come into contact with someone else's infection (e.g., towels, used bandages). Some settings have factors that make it easier for MRSA to be transmitted. These factors, referred to as the 5 C's, are as follows: Crowding, frequent skin-to-skin Contact, Compromised skin (i.e., cuts or abrasions), Contaminated items and surfaces, and lack of Cleanliness. Many of these factors are common in schools and dormitories.

Students can protect themselves by:
A. practicing good hygiene (e.g., keeping your hands clean by washing with soap and water or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer and showering immediately after participating in exercise);
B. covering skin trauma such as abrasions or cuts with a clean dry bandage until healed; and
C. avoiding sharing personal items (e.g., towels, razors) that come into contact with your bare skin; and using a barrier (e.g., clothing or a towel) between your skin and shared equipment such as weight-training benches.

The school can protect students by maintaining a clean environment and establishing cleaning procedures for frequently touched surfaces and surfaces that come into direct contact with people's skin.

Athletes participating in contact sports are at a higher risk for infection because of shared equipment, weights, and mats. Sports equipment should be sanitized, uniforms washed, towels should not be shared in the locker room or on the field, and scrapes and cuts should be looked at and kept covered.

Health officials cannot give an official tally on the number of MRSA cases in our schools, since MRSA is not a reportable disease in most counties or states. Most health officials however agree that there is no epidemic or unusual number of occurrences. Both the media and school systems have a responsibility to be proactive, protecting and educating students and staff — without creating a panic.