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2007-10-31 / Family

County officials try to calm staph fears

By Greg Pearson
STAFF WRITER

Chesterfield County's chief health expert is playing down the media attention given to a recent occurrence of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) at a county school. Earlier this month, parents learned that several James River High School football players had contracted the serious staph infection. MRSA has also been found at several other schools around the state.

Staph is caused by a common bacterium that can live in people's noses or on their skin. The MRSA form of the infection is harder to treat because the bacterium has become resistant to some antibiotics.

While news reports throughout the state raised concern, Dr. Bill Nelson, director of Chesterfield's Health Department, told the board of supervisors last week, "There is an epidemic of awareness." There is not an outbreak, he added, "but it is slowly building up."

Staph infections are not uncommon in schools since about 30 percent of the population carries the infection in their noses. Athletic teams are particularly vulnerable because of the number of students using locker rooms and shower towels.

Health officials say that the small number of MRSA cases reported in Chesterfield is not unexpected and that children ages 5-17 have the lowest rate of MRSA infection. Generally, health officials say, about 85 percent of MRSA cases originate in hospitals or another health care setting rather than in community sites. Senior citizens are the most likely to be infected because their immune systems don't work as well.

Staph causes pimples or boils on the skin that may be red, swollen, painful or have pus or other drainage. It is spread by skin-to-skin contact with an infected person or through other surfaces that are contaminated with the bacteria. People who have open cuts are more likely to get staph, as are those in crowded living conditions and with poor hygiene.

The skin infections are minor and can be easily treated with an antibiotic or be drained by a physician. However, staph infections can become more serious when the bacteria penetrate the bloodstream or cause pneumonia. Doctors say patients should take their full course of prescribed antibiotics and not share them with other persons.

To reduce the risk of staph infection, the Center for Disease Control recommends washing hands often or using an alcohol-based sanitizer; keeping cuts and scrapes covered with bandages; not touching other people's cuts and bandages; and not sharing personal items like towels and razors. In rare cases, it is possible to die from MRSA.

School officials say the school system's Custodial Services Department continually follows a thorough cleaning regimen, but is expanding its efforts by increasing the use of TOR HB, a cleaner that fights MRSA and other bacteria. The school system has used TOR HB for several years to clean locker rooms and restrooms in locker rooms, and that standard continues with daily cleanings of shower areas and restrooms in field houses and locker rooms.

All athletic lockers are now being emptied once a week so they can be disinfected. In addition, custodial staff members are now using TOR HB in place of another cleaner to disinfect all school restrooms and to clean desktops and other classroom surfaces.

Additional information about MRSA is available at www.chesterfield.k12.va.us.

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