November 07, 2007

MRSA problem has been around 'for some time' Precautions in place to prevent spread of infection

by Christi Mathis


CARBONDALE, Ill. — Amid proliferating national news reports of the Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infection, Southern Illinois University Carbondale is employing extra precautions and educational efforts to protect people.

While the consequences can be severe, the infection is not a new problem and tests confirm about 50 cases each year on campus, with no severe complications or deaths, University officials said.

"We have had the MRSA infection around for several years," said Dr. Deedra G. McLain, director of the preventative medicine program at the Student Health Center. "This is not a new thing. It has gained a lot of media attention recently but this problem has been around for some time."

MRSA is actually an infection caused by the bacteria commonly known as "staph," but it's a strain of staph that is resistant to several of the broad-spectrum antibiotics commonly used to treat staph infection. Surprisingly, about one-third of the population has staph bacteria on their skin or in their noses. Although they aren't actually infected or ill, they are "colonized" with MRSA and can pass the germ on to others while experiencing no ill effects themselves.

While staph bacteria are typically harmless, they can enter the body through a cut or other wound. Most often healthy people experience just minor skin problems but some people, especially those who are ill, elderly, or have weakened immune systems, can experience serious illness known as MRSA infection. It can be fatal. McLain said on average, more than four dozen positive cultures are found each year on campus. While there have been some severe infections requiring surgical drainage, intravenous antibiotics and short-term hospitalization, there have been no cases with major complications or loss of life at SIUC.

Moreover, she said people don't always even know they have the infection. McLain said "although on average the past few years there have been about 50 culture-proven cases of MRSA on campus (annually), there may be many more that never seek medical care and clear on their own."

Often, when people do call or seek treatment they say they believe they have a spider bite. A skin lesion or boil, sometimes even resembling a "nasty pimple," is typically the first sign of a staph infection. It can turn into a deep painful abscess requiring surgical drainage. Sometimes, the bacteria dig into the body, causing dangerous infections in bones, joints, the bloodstream, heart valves, lungs or surgical wounds.

Often, oral antibiotics take care of the infection, particularly if caught in the early stages. McLain also noted that while the MRSA infection is resistant to commonly used antibiotics, there are other oral antibiotics as well as intravenous antibiotics that it's generally still sensitive to. She said while there is cause for concern, there's definitely no cause for panic. She recommends those with suspicious skin lesions or sores have them checked by their medical care providers.

Taking precautions helps prevent the infection too, she notes. She recommends frequent hand washing, not sharing bedding or towels and avoiding contact with any open wounds. In addition, people should cover all sores and wounds with clean, dry bandages. Staph infections are more prevalent in athletes, as they are in close physical contact and share equipment and showers. At SIUC, officials have taken steps at athletic training facilities to help ensure the safety of users.

Staff at the Student Recreation Center recently completed an extra-thorough cleaning of the facility and a number of other precautions are in place too. Custodial staff cleans the entrances several times daily and they wipe or mop with a bleach solution the floor mats, restrooms and cardio mats daily. Employees keep clean towels on stock, disinfect toilets multiple times daily and clean equipment every day with a special disinfect solution. They mop the entire locker room and sauna with a bleach solution, hose the sauna and clean the pool deck every day.

The center is also making it easy for patrons to take steps to protect themselves. The equipment desk, the cardio room, the fitness forum, the free weight room, administrative office and lifeguard office are equipped with hand sanitizers. There are paper towel dispensers and ample bottles of disinfect spray at locations throughout the entire facility too. Moreover, Corné Prozesky, assistant director of facilities, is working to acquire trash cans with sanitary wipe dispensers built into the can tops so people can easily grab a cloth and wipe off the bench or equipment they'll be using and then dispose of the wipe.

"Our goal is to get patrons in the habit of wiping the machines and equipment before and after they use it," said Gary D. Tisdale, marketing coordinator for the center. Staff has been educated and they, in turn, are educating the public, he said.

Signs at the center remind visitors to wash hands frequently, shower after playing sports and keep cuts and scrapes covered with a clean bandage. The center's Web site, found at also features links to government and health Internet sites with helpful information about MRSA.

"We're all in this together," said William P. Ehling, director of the Student Recreation Center. "Our staff has taken extra measures and precautions to ensure no virus is spread but we're also trying to educate our users and help them prevent the spread of any virus as well."

"I think it is also a good time to educate people about the overuse of antibiotics because essentially that's what has led to the MRSA problem," McLain said. She said by nature, bacteria seek to find a way to survive and thrive. So, as people take antibiotics too frequently, bacterial infections build resistance to those antibiotics.

"More than 90 percent of the time, coughs and colds are caused by viruses that don't respond to antibiotics anyway," McLain said. "People should avoid using antibiotics when they are not needed."