Drug-resistant staph infections draw media attention

Staph infections have been in the nation’s spotlight after the recent death of a Virginian teenager.

The new “superbug,” methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus bacteria (MRSA), is resistant to most antibiotics and can be easily spread in places where people cluster, like college campuses.

Dr. Howard Anapol, director of the Student Health Service, said staph infections are very common and that MRSA has been an issue in the community for several years. If there is a MRSA case at the University of Miami, he said doctors would always assume it is resistant to the older antibiotics and treat it with the appropriate medicine. If the case occurred in an area where it may have spread to others, the Health Center would contact that area to suggest appropriate hygiene measures.

“It’s never been a significant issue on this campus, but anyone who practices medicine will periodically see a staph infection,” Anapol said. “For the past several years we have known that the staph was predominately resistant to the older antibiotics.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently determined that MRSA is responsible for 94,000 infections and nearly 19,000 deaths per year in America, making MRSA responsible for more deaths annually than AIDS.

MRSA is carried on the skin or in the naval cavities. Symptoms vary, but often include a swollen area on the skin similar to a spider bite. The infection can enter the bloodstream and infect vital organs, like the tissues around the heart, kidneys and liver.

Because MRSA is usually spread through skin-to-skin contact or by touching objects used by an infected individual, the best defense against infection is frequent hand-washing.

“It’s reasonable to use antibiotic lotions or gels if you don’t have access to simple hand-washing,” Anapol said. “We have asked for the antibacterial gel dispensers to be placed on campus in areas that are heavily used, like the computer labs, dining facilities and the Wellness Center.”

When the Health Center observed an increased number of staph infections at UM several years ago, doctors were able to trace the bug back to a sports team by logging each case to determine if there was a common source.

“In sports teams where they use the same equipment and touch the same surfaces there is greater risk for spreading infections from person to person,” Anapol said.

Kevin Blaske, associate athletic trainer, said that a couple of different sports teams have had staph infections in the past, although there have been none so far this year.

“What we’ve done is really concentrated on teaching and educating the athletes to shower after practices, clean themselves, and wash really well,” Blaske said. “If they have anything questionable, they show us right away.”

Staph infections come in waves, Anapol said, and there is no need for campus-wide panic. Anapol said the recent media blitz has inflated concern, noting that staph infections are nothing new and still relatively uncommon on campus.

“We’ve only seen sporadic cases,” Anapol said. “We’ve seen fewer cases this year than we did last year and the year prior.”

Kelly Herson may be contacted at k.herson@umiami.edu.