Reports of staph infections spread

October 10, 2007|By Ruma Kumar and Phillip McGowan | Ruma Kumar and Phillip McGowan,Sun Reporters

Amid more than two dozen reports of a harmful bacterial skin infection among Anne Arundel County high school students and staff members, school and health officials urged better hygiene but said there is no reason to be alarmed about an outbreak.

Four high schools - Severna Park, Glen Burnie, Old Mill and Chesapeake - have received reports of 28 staphylococcus infections over the past three weeks.

Many of the cases were reported after an initial batch at Severna Park, which fanned concern among parents who complained about what they called dingy athletic facilities at high schools.

"We received these reports not because these are all new cases but because of heightened awareness of parents hearing about Severna Park and coming into schools and saying, `I think Jimmy had this,'" said Bob Mosier, spokesman for Anne Arundel schools.

"Some of these cases are four months old. This is all self-reported, so we have no idea how many of these are actual confirmed cases."

The county Health Department has confirmed one case. The others were reported to school administrators by parents and students.

County Health Officer Frances B. Phillips said the number of cases is not unusual. The reported cases would amount to about one-tenth of 1 percent of the 24,908 students and staff members at the county's dozen high schools.

It is virtually impossible to pinpoint where students picked up the infections, and it was unfair to blame schools, she said.

"High school students that don't practice good hygiene ... [and] set themselves up for this," Phillips said.

Staph typically spreads through skin-to-skin contact, open cuts or scrapes, or contact with surfaces contaminated with the bacteria. Symptoms include red, swollen, warm skin. The infections are commonly mistaken for spider bites.

At a news conference yesterday called to allay fears, school officials said crews have been scrubbing all 12 high schools with a hospital-grade disinfectant every day for several weeks.

"If we take the pretty simple step of cleanliness and hygiene, we will get through this," Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell said.

Parents said the school system should have done more.

"As a parent, it makes me feel good that the district is taking some action, but it ticks me off that it took students getting something that could kill them to get the Board of Education to do something about it. They're supposed to be proactive, not reactive," said Larry Sells, president of Severna Park High's athletic booster club.

News of the first crop of infections, involving three students and two staff members at Severna Park High, spread quickly among parents. It was talked about at sports events, where parents worried that the conditions at the school's aging gym and athletic training rooms were contributing to the problem.

"Of course we were worried ... that we were experiencing this because Severna Park High's facilities needs had been overlooked because of the dire needs of other schools," said Chris Maranto, a co-president of the school's parent organization whose son plays for the school football team.

"To be fair, the school did a good job of communicating, sending a letter out so parents didn't have half-information to work with. There was a lot of advice about washing hands and checking for cuts, and the thing is, kids this age don't come home and tell you about a cut they get on the field."

A number of heavily publicized staph outbreaks among athletes - the St. Louis Rams in 2003 and the Orioles two years later - drew attention to the risk of the infection and the need to avoid unsanitary practices such as sharing towels.

Scientific evidence is growing that staph skin infections, once rare, are becoming more common and more virulent.

In the Baltimore area, emergency room doctors have seen a threefold increase, a leading Johns Hopkins epidemiologist said, citing a Baltimore study that ran in the October 2006 issue of the journal Pediatric Emergency Care.

"In early 2000, we started seeing this more virulent strain, with kids and adults getting sick very fast. ... It was acting more like a toxin," said Trish Perl, also a professor at the Johns Hopkins University.

What used to be an infection that was easily managed with penicillin grew resistant to antibiotics and began producing more severe symptoms.

In the past six years, Perl said, she and her colleagues have begun seeing the deadly lung disease necrotizing pneumonia and toxic-shock syndrome, a type of blood poisoning that can be fatal. The newest strains are also mysterious. There are few clues about where they start, Perl said.

Doctors used to the common form seen a decade ago knew that many of the infections started in hospitals and long-term care facilities, but the newest strains are "community-based, out there in the community, in the general environment, and we're not quite sure where," Perl said.

Preventing a staph infection

Staphylococcus aureus, or staph, bacteria can be carried on the skin or in the noses of healthy people. Sometimes they cause infections of the skin, blood, bones or lungs. Most are treated successfully with antibiotics, but some have become resistant. To avoid an infection:

Keep hands clean by washing thoroughly with soap and water.

Keep cuts and abrasions clean and covered with a bandage until healed.

Avoid contact with other people's wounds or material contaminated from wounds.

[Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]

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