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Staph infection common on college campuses

Jenn Metz | Thursday, November 8, 2007

A staph infection caused by the antibiotic-resistant “superbug,” known as MRSA, is a common problem on college campuses and serves as a reminder of the importance of hand-washing and personal hygiene, Assistant Director of Clinical Services Pat Brubaker said.

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) was first found in hospitals, but a strain called community-acquired MRSA is “on the rise,” Brubaker said.

“Because this is a campus setting where we share many things – space and facilities – you’re just more prone to getting staph,” she said.

Staphylococcus aureus bacteria are normally found on the skin or in the nose of about 1/3 of the population, according to the Mayo Clinic’s Web site.

“Not everybody gets sick from it,” Brubaker said.

The problem arises when the bacteria gets under the skin, either because of a break in the skin, dry skin or an abrasion. Then, an infection appears on the skin resembling a pimple or boil, she said.

There are students at the University with staph infections right now, Brubaker said, but they “have been instructed on what they’re supposed to do.”

“The students who have those kinds of infections are told how to cover the wound and given strict instructions on how to act on campus so it’s not spread,” she said.

The incidence of staph infections at Notre Dame is not an “outbreak,” Brubaker said, because there is no traceable common origin of the infections.

“I’m not saying we’re not a little worried when we see it, but we’re good at treating it,” she said.

In order to treat the infections with an effective antibiotic, doctors must look for the source, Brubaker said.

“Two students last year had infections related to the fact they hadn’t washed their sheets … you could get an infection in an open area just by dirty laundry,” she said.

Living in shared spaces and not practicing good hygiene make college students more susceptible to staph infections. However, out of the 140 cases of students diagnosed with “wound infections” since January, probably six are MRSA-related, Brubaker said.

“The population of the college campus feels that they’re invincible and they don’t wash their hands enough,” she said.

Washing hands, wiping down shared equipment, cleaning linens with bleach and drying linens in a very hot dryer can prevent staph infections, she said.

University workout facilities and locker rooms are “doing what they can,” Brubaker said.

“Our facilities, like the training room at the Joyce Center, RecSports and the Rock, are all well aware of the increased incidences of MRSA. They have policies about the cleaning of equipment, the use of whirlpools, etc.,” she said.

The bacteria can live on inanimate surfaces for hours, she said, but antibacterial wipes and cleaning can prevent infection.

Shaving puts people at increased risk for staph infection, especially on skin folds, since the razor breaks the skin.

One of the causes of MRSA is the overuse and misuse of antibiotics, which has caused germs to “become bolder and stronger.”

Because of this, it is difficult to treat the resistant infection.

“Even if we had three cases in front of us, they might be on three different antibiotics,” Brubaker said.

“The only common thing is that penicillin will not work for any of them,” she said.

The best initial treatment for staph is a hot wet compress to encourage the infection to drain, Brubaker said. One should see a doctor if a pimple-like infection gets worse, or multiple areas become infected.

“You should not try to pinch it – that makes the infection go in further rather than get out,” she said.

CA-MRSA can be potentially fatal, but it is “rare that anyone in this age group would die from staph,” Brubaker said.

Most deaths related to the bacteria occur when people have weakened immune systems or when the infection gets internalized in the bloodstream or joints.