Just in time for Halloween, school officials around the country have been scrambling with the prospect of an invasion of bacterial infections. A federal report released last week indicated that the bacteria, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, are responsible for more deaths in the United States each year than AIDS.
MRSA is a strain of staph bacteria that does not respond to penicillin or related antibiotics, though it can be treated with other drugs. The infection can be spread by sharing items, like a towel or a piece of sports equipment that has been used by an infected person, or through skin-to-skin contact with an open wound.
At the same time the federal report was released, scores of schools were closed and events were canceled in Connecticut, Maryland, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia as cleaning crews disinfected buses, lockers and classrooms.
In Sandy Spring, Maryland the football players here at a local high school were not getting the message about washing their uniforms and using only their own jerseys, so the school nurse paid a surprise visit to the locker room. She brought along a baseball bat to get her point across – wash your hands! Seven players on the team had already contracted the deadly drug-resistant strain of bacteria this year.
School officials in Mississippi, New Hampshire and Virginia reported student deaths within the past month from the bacteria, while officials in at least four other states reported cases of students being infected.
The federal report, written by doctors at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that nearly 19,000 people had died in the United States in 2005 after an invasive MRSA infection. The study also suggested that such infections might be twice as common as previously thought.
Health officials have begun reporting a growing number of cases in schools, gyms and day care centers, and not just in nursing homes and hospitals, as has often been the case in the past. Although the bacteria mostly affect student athletes, cases have been reported in children of elementary school age as well.
The C.D.C. study found that 27 percent of all invasive MRSA infections originated in hospitals, while 58 percent began outside of a hospital but in patients with some recent exposure to the health care system. The remaining 15 percent of invasive MRSA cases originated in the community without any apparent health care risk factor.