May 25, 2016

Mostly cloudy

Staph worries not prevalent in county

CDC report, Va. death began national concern about bacteria

A hospitalized Clearview student, the death of a 17-year-old Virginia football player and a new study released by the Centers for Disease Control have all led to a fear of staph infections around Lorain County.

With the typical frenzy that accompanies a perceived medical threat — especially  among seemingly healthy students — it becomes difficult to tell whether this latest medical “epidemic” is due to an increased prevalence of the disease or just an increased awareness of it.

How to prevent staph
• Always wash hands
Don’t share towels, jerseys or even cell phones
Cover all wounds
Regularly clean all clothes
Sanitize mats and practice equipment
Have a medical professional check any boils, lesions or slow-healing cuts

Staph infections are so common — and usually non-threatening — that health professionals are not even required to record their occurrence. According to county Health Commissioner Ken Pearce, up to 80 percent of the population may already have staph-causing bacteria on their skin or in their nasal passages. This “normal inhabitant on the skin” is only truly dangerous, however, when it finds its way into the internal organs, he said.

Once inside the body, staph infections usually begin by forming lesions or pus-filled boils on the skin that can be easily cured. However, if untreated, invasive staph infections can lead to blood or bone infections and even death.

That was the case for a 17-year-old football player from Moneta, Va. Ashton Bonds’ death Oct. 15 sparked nationwide attention to staph infection and led to a public health emergency being declared at Staunton River High School, which Bonds attended. And while the setting for Bonds’ contraction of the infection was far from rare — locker rooms and dormitories have long been the sites for staph concerns — his unfortunate death was atypical.

Despite this, or perhaps because of, news of Bonds’ death bounded around the country causing parents, teachers and students to re-evaluate the harmfulness of something they once considered of little danger. This was no doubt aided by the release of a new government study that raised questions about the actual rate and danger of staph infections.

This study was conducted by researchers from the Centers for Disease Control, and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and purported that the same turbulent and dangerous form of antibiotic resistant staph infection that killed Bonds is much more common than almost anyone had previously thought.

This study focused on a specific antibiotic-resistant strain of staph infections — methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA — which is apparently a lot easier to contract than it is to pronounce. If the findings are accurate, it would mean that MRSA kills more Americans each year than AIDS and infects more than 90,000 people a year.

These findings are certainly troublesome and worthy of the public’s attention. It is important to note, however, that MRSA is not — as of yet — the strain found in any of the Lorain County examples. Not surprisingly, the study finds that MRSA is vastly more common, 85 percent of the reported cases, in health care facilities. In these settings, mainly hospitals and nursing homes, the infection has much more opportunity to pass from unsanitary instruments and to occupants with a much weaker immune system.

The overall rate of incidence in the study was about 32 invasive infections per 100,000. For those 65 and older this rate increased to 128 per 100,000. But for children from 5 to 17, the number was a slender 1.4 per 100,000, according to the study.

As far as an outbreak in Lorain County is concerned, Pearce’s fears are not yet rising.

“As far as I know, none of the cases have been identified as MRSA,” he said. He added that there is no evidence to suggest that Lorain County is amidst a spell of especially high occurrence of staph infections.

Pearce, though, does acknowledge the dangers of antibiotics. Distributed haphazardly, Pearce cautioned, antibiotics can do far more harm than good. By building up resistance to them and giving the infection a chance to mutate, antibiotics could be responsible for the much more virulent form of the disease than what we were accustomed to, according to Pearce.

But with none of the Lorain County cases — now up to two Clearview and five Keystone football players and one Oberlin college student — having been identified as MRSA, Pearce issued calming words.

“This is not out of control. It is a problem that we always have to keep in mind, but there is no reason now to start fearing the worst.”

And, echoing the words of the proverbial grandmother, Pearce added, “this is really an opportunity to remind us all of the importance of basic hygiene."

Contact Michael Baker at 329-7155 or