Addressing Some of the Fears and Myths About Staph Infections

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By Gaurov Dayal
Thursday, March 13, 2008

It started with a few news reports, and then the frenzy began. Methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, made its way into the headlines and quickly became a household word. Emergency rooms and physician offices were flooded with patients who believed that they had contracted the new "superbug."

The whirlwind of information -- containing some truth and some myth -- left many unanswered questions for our community. This month, hospitals around Maryland, through an initiative of the Maryland Hospital Association, are holding community education forums to answer these questions and end myths about MRSA. All members of our community may not be able to attend one of these informative sessions, but I still think that it is important for everyone to understand some basic facts.

MRSA is a form of staphylococcus aureus, otherwise known as a staph infection. Staph is the most common cause of skin infections in the United States. About 30 percent of us carry staph bacteria on our skin. There are forms of staph that have developed resistance to some, but not all, antibiotics. We call these staph infections methicillin-resistant, which refers to the groups of antibiotics that do not seem to combat this strain.

About 1 percent of people carry the MRSA bacteria. Most people will never know that they carry staph bacteria unless they develop an open wound and the bacteria makes its way inside, causing an infection. A simple nose swab can also determine whether someone is a carrier of staph bacteria. Today, many hospitals have procedures in place to test patients who are at risk for MRSA so that extra protective measures can be taken for patients and staff members.

In the infectious disease world, MRSA is not new. Since the 1960s, health-care facilities have combated MRSA with various forms of antibiotics. However, good infection control practices in the health-care industry -- mainly stringent hand washing and environmental cleaning -- have limited the spread of the hospital-based form of MRSA.

In the 1980s, the community form of MRSA -- a more virulent strain -- began to be seen in sports teams and in other settings where people have close contact, such as, dormitories and schools. This is the same form of MRSA that we have most recently heard about in our community. The public must understand that in rare and severe cases, community-based MRSA can cause hospitalization and even death. However, most people who have MRSA will recover. Good prevention and early treatment when signs -- such as a pimple or boil that is red, swollen, painful or has pus -- appear are critical to managing this important health issue so that it does not become a widespread threat.

The actions that we can all take to combat MRSA are simple and involve basic infection control principles that are standard in health-care facilities. Most important, hand washing with soap and warm water must become second nature to all of us and part of our routine. This alone can have the greatest impact on combating the spread of MRSA. When hand washing is not an option, alcohol-based hand sanitizers also work.

Next, personal items, including razors, towels and washcloths, must remain personal and should not be shared. [For example, if one person wipes their hands on a towel, another person should not use the same towel until it has been properly washed.] These items can harbor staph bacteria and easily spread the bacteria from person to person. Open wounds should also be cleaned and covered to prevent staph bacteria, including MRSA, from entering the body.

Last, we must make sure that our homes, schools, day-care centers, gyms and other public places where people closely interact are cleaned regularly and with solutions that eliminate bacteria. If all of us can put these simple concepts into regular practice, we can help keep our community healthy and fight off the spread of MRSA.

Hospitals in Montgomery County and across the state are holding free community forums this month on methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a form of staph infection that is resistant to certain antibiotics. MRSA has captured widespread public attention in recent months; several people have died as a result of the bacteria. More than 50 cases have been reported among Montgomery County public school students since October. Gaurov Dayal, a pediatrician and chief medical officer at Shady Grove Adventist Hospital in Rockville, which hosted a forum last week, writes about how to prevent the contraction and spread of MRSA.

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