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Fight staph:
Wash your hands

State health officer says itís not necessary to keep children home to avoid drug-resistant infection

By M.J. Ellington
mjellington@decaturdaily.com ∑ (334) 262-1104

MONTGOMERY — Sometimes staph is a super bug. Other times, it is just super-aggravating.

Health officials say the challenge is to get people to wash their hands, which is the key to stopping staph from spreading.

Reports of drug-resistant staph infection in schools and other public settings are alarming the public, Dr. Don Williamson, state health officer, said Monday.

Meanwhile, parents wonder whether to keep their children at home when methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aurous, or MRSA, turns up at school. School officials wonder whether they should close and sanitize schools. People have similar concerns about day care.

Williamson said although there has been a lot of publicity this year, MRSA is not new to schools. Community-acquired MRSA has been around at least five years and other strains since the 1960s.

Williamson had his own bout with community-acquired MRSA this fall when he scraped his arm on a shelf while shaving. After a week, the scraped area became red and inflamed. He saw his doctor for stronger medicine when it did not respond to the usual medication.

Williamson said he does not think it is necessary to keep children home to avoid the infection. He does believe it is important that they practice good sanitation.

He hopes that all the attention can get people to do the one thing that health officials know will reduce spread of the infection: wash their hands. If soap and water are not available, he said, alcohol-based hand sanitizers work as well.

Handwashing seems like a pretty simple way to keep germs from going from hand to mouth or hand to eye, but Williamson said far too many people just donít wash frequently.

When hands donít look dirty and people donít think theyíve done anything to get them dirty, they may pick up a staph or flu germ from touching something that seems harmless.

ďThe invisible germ does not get the attention it deserves,Ē Williamson said.

In Alabama and elsewhere, staph is not generally a reportable disease.

That means that unless there are outbreaks of the disease with multiple cases, public health departments arenít likely to hear about them.

Staph lives on the skin and in the noses of about 30 percent of the population without causing illness. There is no simple culture to rule out the disease.

Break in the skin

Staph illness occurs when the bacteria get into the body through a break in the skin. This type of staph produces whitish pus and can spread. Usually antibiotics treat it successfully, but sometimes the bacteria become resistant to the antibiotics and develop into super bugs.

There are different strains of staph infection, Williamson said. The kind that usually occurs in hospitals and other health care settings is often among people with weakened immune systems, cancer or multiple health problems.

People who live in crowded conditions — such as in jails and prisons, dormitories, military barracks and nursing homes — and people frequently admitted to a hospital are also at higher risk.

Hospitals and other health facilities and places such as prisons and jails are more likely places for drug-resistant staph to develop, experts say. Studies show that 85 percent of severe MRSA cases are in health-care settings. The strain also occurs more often in people 65 and older.

The hospital-acquired strain is more commonly antibiotic-resistant and more likely to be deadly.

State epidemiologist Fred Grady cautioned against overusing antibiotics. Health officials do not know what is causing the MRSA increase, he said. But they do know that over-use of more powerful antibiotics can lead to drug-resistant organisms or ďsuper bugs.Ē

Preventing the spread of staph

In schools

  • Do not share personal items such as skin-care products and clothing,

  • Wash hands with soap and water for 15 seconds, or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

  • Keep cuts and scrapes clean and covered with a bandage until healed. Do not pick scabs.

  • Avoid contact with other peopleís wounds or bandages.

  • Wash hands immediately after changing a bandage.

  • Seek medical attention if a wound does not heal properly or looks infected.

  • Encourage students and teachers to report known or suspected methicillin-resistant staph infections to the school nurse.

    In athletic settings

  • Cover all wounds, change bandages frequently, and make sure any drainage is contained. Athletes with wounds that are draining and cannot be covered to contain drainage should not practice or play any contact sport.

  • Athletes should shower using soap after all practices and competitions.

  • Wash towels and equipment, including equipment bags, in the hottest water possible. Dry on the hottest possible cycle to kill bacteria.

  • Do not share towels or personal items such as clothing and equipment.

  • Clean shared equipment, including mats, with a solution of one tablespoon of bleach to one quart of water, freshened daily.

  • Train athletes, coaches and trainers in first aid for wounds and in recognizing signs of infected wounds.

  • Assess athletes regularly for skin infections.

  • See a doctor if a wound does do not heal or needs more care

    On the Net: MRSA information, www.adph.org/epi.

    Alabama Department of Public Health

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