MRSA outbreak causes scare

Friday, December 21, 2007

By Gwenn Barney, Allderdice High School (City of Pittsburgh Schools)

Over the past year, the staph infection Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus, better known by its acronym MRSA, has captured national attention as it continues to infect high school students across the country. As of October 2007, 17 school districts in Allegheny County alone have reported cases of MRSA.

MRSA is known as a "super bug" because it is resistant to the antibiotics from the methicillin family, typically used in the treatment of normal staph infections of the skin.

The first case of MRSA was reported almost 40 years ago. It didn’t affect high school students, but rather the elderly and those with weakened immune systems. At first it was only seen in hospitals and nursing home settings.

Today, healthy people can carry Staphylococcus Aureus on their skin and in their noses; it is only when the skin is broken and allows for entry of the MRSA organism, that infection can occur. When infection occurs it appears as tiny red bumps, which take on the appearance of pustules or boils. They are often red, swollen, painful, warm to the touch, and they may or may not have pus or other drainage. The wound can be frequently misdiagnosed, as it may look like a spider bite.

MRSA is transmitted by direct skin to skin contact with an infected individual. It can also spread by sharing objects such as towels and razors, or by coming in contact with someone else’s infection.

No one is immune to MRSA, but it appears that high school athletes all over the country have been contracting this infection at a much higher rate than the general population. There has been a marked increase in MRSA in athletes in the Pittsburgh and surrounding areas. Several Mt. Lebanon High School students were infected with MRSA, as well as students from North Hills and most recently, Bethel Park High School.

Due to the fact that more high school athletes were infected, in October 2007, a Pittsburgh television station questioned whether or not there was a relationship between artificial field turf and school athletes becoming infected with MRSA. To examine this theory, Allegheny County Health Department officials tested the turf and field house of a local high school, and the results proved to be negative as far as MRSA growth was concerned.

At Allderdice many students are expressing concern in regards to the rapid spread of MRSA. "I wasn’t worried until I heard stuff on the news," sophmore football player Terell Harris said. "They got me scared and now I [wash] my stuff in the locker room."

Freshman Madie Massey is also employing greater awareness of MRSA in the wake of recent reports. "I always carry hand sanitizer in case someone has MRSA," she said "I don’t want to get sick with it."

Protecting oneself from contracting MRSA requires vigilance. Practicing good hygiene by washing your hands with warm soap and water is essential, especially before and after lunch as well as before and after athletic games and practice. Rubbing your hands together vigorously for at least 20 seconds before rinsing is advised. "Soap and water is your best defense against MRSA," said Nurse Practitioner Linda Diskin. It is likewise important to cover any skin cuts or abrasions with a dry, clean bandage until healed. Avoidance of sharing personal items and maintaining a clean environment, especially when dealing with porous surfaces which come in direct contact with people’s skin, are also important components of avoiding MRSA.

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