Drug-Resistant Staph Infection Spreads to Gyms, Day Care

By Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
April 25, 2006

A potentially lethal strain of staph infection was once a worry mainly in hospitals. But MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) is becoming increasingly common in gyms, day care centers, prisons, and other venues where people are in close contact and hygiene is often lacking.

MRSA is a type of Staphylococcus bacterium that is resistant to penicillin and some other antibiotics. The bacteria invade the body via cuts in the skin, causing infection that can be debilitating if not treated early and with the appropriate antibiotics. In rare instances MRSA can be lethal.

Athletes, including gymgoers, may be at risk. In 2003 five members of the St. Louis Rams football team were infected with MRSA. The infections of the players were associated with "turf burns." The bacteria were likely spread among players through shared towels, whirlpool baths, and weightlifting equipment.

MRSA is not, however, a disease that affects just athletes.

"This disease is spread by close skin-to-skin contact, crowding, sharing contaminated items," Nicole Coffin, a spokesperson at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, said. "Cleanliness is a big issue.

"At this point, everybody in the community can be at risk for MRSA," she said.

Changing Epidemiology

Staph bacteria are commonly carried by people on the skin or in their noses. Staph is the most common cause of skin and soft-tissue infection.

Some staph strains are resistant to conventional antibiotics, such as methicillin (a synthetic form of penicillin), and are known as MRSA.

"We think about one percent of the U.S. population, or about two million people, carry this drug-resistant form of staph," Coffin said.

MRSA has been seen in hospitals for about 30 years. There, it usually occurs among people with weakened immune systems, such as elderly patients with underlying illnesses, and patients who have had surgery.

The hospital-based infection may start out as redness around an intravenous line entry or a surgical wound, but it can spread to the lungs, causing pneumonia, or to the blood, causing breathing difficulties, fever, and malaise, possibly resulting in a life-threatening disease.

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