The Collegian
Friday, January 27, 2023

Media hype over staph infection exaggerated, experts say

Washing your hands and getting a flu shot could save your life.

These are two of the best ways to protect yourself from contracting potentially fatal methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), said Dr. Lynne Deane, medical director for the Student Health Center at the University of Richmond.

MRSA is a virulent, drug-resistant strain of staph infection that is believed to have caused the death of a Bedford County, Va., high school student on Oct. 15. Although there has been a great deal of media attention about MRSA, Deane said staph infections are no more of a concern to campus than any prior year.

"Because of the flurry of action about MRSA in the news, we sent out an e-mail on Monday," Deane said about the staph infection prevention e-mail sent to all students, faculty and staff. The e-mail provided several methods for preventing staph infections, including bathing after physical activity, keeping cuts covered and washing hands.

MRSA can infect people both invasively and noninvasively, said Dr. Carl Armstrong, state epidemiologist and director for the Office of Epidemiology at the Virginia Department of Health.

Invasive staph infections infect sterile areas in the body, such as kidneys, blood stream and spinal column, said Paula Lessem, director of genetics/cell and molecular labs at Richmond. She said when the infection reaches these sterile areas, it can cause a variety of diseases, such as pneumonia and meningitis. Because staph infections often sicken those with immune deficiencies or prior illnesses, these diseases pose an even greater risk than normal, Lessem said.

Non-invasive staph infections are often first seen when a wound that will not heal or a mark that looks like a spider bite with a dark head appears. They are treated with antibiotics, and if there are any boils or abscesses, they are drained or removed by a physician, Deane said.

Armstrong, who is also an internist specializing in infectious diseases, said Staphylococcus is a very common organism that is carried by many people and by the overuse of antibiotics has changed.

"In hospitals [Staphylococcus] gained some resistance to antibiotics," he said. "In the last 10 years, it has moved from hospitals to the community."

Although it is no longer primarily isolated in hospitals, MRSA is still generally passed through person-to-person contact.

"Staph infections have been around forever," Deane said. "There are 50 years or more worth of data on hospital-acquired MRSA, but no data for community contracted MRSA."

Armstrong said the emphasis of the environment by the media has been largely misplaced. He said this overreaction led to the closing and cleaning of several schools in Virginia. MRSA might be wiped out by the cleaning, but as soon as people returned to the school, the bacteria would return with the people, Armstrong said.

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Although he said there was no need to close schools, teens need to be particularly careful about MRSA. "Teens who play contact sports such as wrestling or football are subject to get breaks in the skin," Armstrong said. "If there is not good hygiene, then it can pass from one athlete to another."

Deane said Richmond students should also continue to have good hygiene especially during exam times. "Around exam time, attention to self lapses in areas such as sleeping, eating and bathing," she said. By eating healthy, sleeping and bathing regularly, students can keep their immune systems strong.

There have been three diagnosed staph infections since the beginning of this semester, Deane said. Students are able to get wound cultures to see if their infections are MRSA, but these tests cost $101 for students. Because Virginia will now be keeping track of the number of MRSA infections, Deane said the health center might perform more wound cultures. Deane said she might have treated cases of MRSA on campus before, but there was no way to tell.

"In the past, if antibiotics didn't work, it was switched instead of cultured," she said. "Now there will be an increase of wound cultures because we are looking for MRSA.

"We will do the wound culture sooner because it is the only way to ID the organism and know for sure what we're dealing with."

Since the e-mail was sent to students, Deane said there have been a few more students coming into the health center with cuts and abrasions wondering if they have MRSA. Although there had been no new cases since the e-mail about MRSA was sent, Deane said she was glad students were coming in to be safe.

"If you are going to come in, call ahead of time so you don't have to sit and wait," she said. Deane added that she wants to provide same day service for everyone who comes into the health center concerned about a wound or bump.

This new focus on MRSA is partly because of a study released by the Journal of the American Medical Association designed to determine the "incidence and distribution of invasive MRSA disease" in nine U.S. cities during 2005.

The study concluded that MRSA, "is a major health problem primarily related to health care but no longer confined to intensive care units, acute care hospitals or any health care institutions."

Although this has become a cause for concern, Deane insisted that students could take precautions, such as carrying small bottles of Purell hand sanitizer in their backpacks to regularly clean their hands.

"The more students who get immunized against the flu and pneumonia and wash their hands, the more it protects not only the student but the community," she said.

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