Blitzing Microbial Infections

Equipment intern Jay Jenkins distributes personalized towels in the locker room. Players are being urged to practice meticulous personal hygiene.
Equipment intern Jay Jenkins distributes personalized towels in the locker room. Players are being urged to practice meticulous personal hygiene. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
By Howard Bryant
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 3, 2006

The Washington Redskins took quiet steps during the offseason to combat one of their tiniest and toughest foes -- a microscopic organism that is becoming increasingly dangerous and potentially lethal.

The microbe, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), is a bacteria once relegated to hospitals and prisons but now -- because athletes are in such close contact with one another and share Jacuzzis, whirlpools and athletic equipment -- is proliferating in locker rooms at all levels of sports.

Over the past two years, the Redskins have had five cases of MRSA, team physician Tony Casolaro said last year.

"We're concerned about it," said Bubba Tyer, the Redskins' director of sports medicine. "We don't want to lose any player. We don't want anything to affect their career and we want to do all we can do. It's a terrible infection that can cripple your team."

In addition to spending $17,000 on a new Jacuzzi system that is equipped with an ultraviolet light filtering system designed to kill germs, the Redskins hired SportsCoatings Inc. to treat the training room, locker rooms and weight rooms with an anti-microbial coating the company claims will help kill various strains of the bacteria. Tyer did not divulge the amount the Redskins spent, but SportsCoatings spokeswoman Wendy Orthman said the treatment cost roughly $1.50 per square foot.

The Redskins aren't the first NFL team to take preventative measures where MRSA is concerned. Some teams are doing so with different products this year and others, such as the St. Louis Rams, have done so in the past, using bleach.

But preventing MRSA doesn't end with simply an expenditure of money. Players must be retrained. To Tyer, who has taken a personal interest in the prevention of MRSA, especially at the high school and college levels, the Redskins' high-tech approach has little value if the team and players do not adopt basic, low-tech methods, such as washing hands with an alcohol-based sanitizer, avoiding sharing towels and daily athletic gear. Last season, the Redskins' locker room was filled with benches. This year, each locker has its own stool.

"We spent a lot of money this offseason," Tyer said. "We have new carpet, new paint, new benches. Having said all of that, it's improved our facilities a great deal."

Players are constantly reminded not to let down their guard. A reminder among the collection of player photos hanging on the wall should be a photo of Brandon Noble, a backup defensive lineman last year who has been twice treated for a MRSA infection on his right leg and whose career is in limbo.

There are also signs throughout the training room, reminding players to avoid entering the whirlpools or Jacuzzis without first having showered. At each entrance to the training room are oversized dispensers of antibacterial liquid soap. In the locker room's bathroom area, across from the new Jacuzzi, is a sign adjacent to the sink, reminding players not to share razors.

Representatives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also inspected the Redskins' facilities, Tyer said.

The Redskins have taken a futuristic -- if not apocalyptic -- view of fighting germs in an environment that is frighteningly ripe for them, medical experts say. Last week, the Toronto Blue Jays confirmed that the staph infection that has kept right fielder Alex Rios on the disabled list for the past month is a version of MRSA, which can enter the body through a tiny opening in the skin and spread rapidly. Blue Jays pitcher Ty Taubenheim, who is suffering from an infection on his foot, also is on the disabled list, but it is unclear whether the infection is MRSA.

In 2003, Jeffrey Hageman, an epidemiologist with the CDC and expert in sports-related MRSA cases, investigated the St. Louis Rams and found that five of 58 players developed MRSA infections, likely from turf abrasions. In his research on the Rams, Hageman found linebackers, linemen and players of high body mass to be particularly susceptible.

To health experts and sports physicians alike, the reason for MRSA's growing prevalence is confounding. According to CDC spokeswoman Nicole Coffin, disease experts believe that MRSA has not grown in virulence because of environmental forces, meaning that the Redskins' locker room is perhaps no more naturally predisposed to MRSA today than it might have been 20 years ago. The difference, she said, is in the need to increase prevention methods.

Staph infections have been part of the sports world for years, but in recent years, medical experts say, the MRSA bacteria have become highly resistant to common antibiotics, such as penicillin. In turn, the potential for its spread, some experts believe, has been heightened by the inappropriate use of antibiotics, such as using antibiotics to treat viruses and not bacteria. These misuses can increase the resistance of bacteria.

The Redskins aren't finished with their preventative measures. Tyer said the team plans over the next few weeks to apply the same treatments to their facilities at FedEx Field. In addition, Tyer said, the Redskins plan to use similar prevention methods for road games.

But will the sprays and other precautions work? Orthman said the application of anti-microbial spray protected a surface for life without the possibility of the bacteria becoming resistant. Orthman also said that the chemicals that comprise the treatment do not weaken over time.

According to Coffin, the CDC does not evaluate the efficacy of products, nor do they test the methodology behind products.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company