This fall, when stories of MRSA-related deaths hit the presses, Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) was transformed from an issue primarily known to and monitored by public health officials and health care providers to a “killer bacteria” in the headlines. So what is MRSA? And, more importantly, how concerned should you be?
While medical and public health officials agree that MRSA is an issue to be taken seriously, MRSA is most often preventable, and treatable. Treatment for a MRSA infection may include simply cleaning and covering the wound, lancing and draining of the wound by a health care provider, and/or antibiotics that can cure MRSA
MRSA infections are caused by a type of the bacteria commonly known as “staph.” These bacteria are typically found on the skin and in the nose of about one-third of the population. Most people have no harmful effects from the bacteria unless the bacteria enter the body through an open wound or a cut. The majority of infections that occur when the bacteria do enter the body are minor; but in people who are elderly, or who have weakened immune systems, the infection can be very serious. Without adequate precautions, MRSA infections can be passed from person to person.
How can you prevent MRSA?
Hand washing is the single, most important step in preventing the spread of MRSA, especially after contact with an infected person. When you don’t have easy access to soap and water, alcohol-based hand sanitizers can be used. Avoiding contact with another person’s open wounds is also important, as is covering and caring for all open cuts and wounds. (These may look like spider bites or boils.) Make sure to pay attention to wounds and talk to your doctor if a wound becomes red or painful or if you develop a fever. If even a small cut or wound does not seem to be healing, contact your doctor. Do not share towels or razors. If you or your children go to a gym, make sure you shower after exercising or using a steam room or sauna.
Regular cleaning of common surfaces such as tabletops, kitchen counters and doorknobs with soap and water will remove dirt and most of the germs. Sometimes, such as when someone in your household is ill or when you’ve had many people in the house, you may want to disinfect for an extra level of protection from germs. You can use a light bleach solution (one tablespoon of bleach per quart of water) or any disinfectant labeled to kill staph bacteria.
How dangerous is MRSA?
While MRSA can be serious for a small minority of people who become infected, it is generally less of a threat than many common diseases like influenza (flu). Millions of Americans get the flu each year, and 35,000 of them will die from influenza-related complications. Unfortunately, most people choose not to get a flu shot unless the media draw attention to the flu because of an issue like vaccine shortages or child deaths. Other serious, avoidable diseases happen in our area regularly; we have had recent outbreaks of pertussis (whooping cough) and Norovirus, and cases of hepatitis A and other diseases that are preventable by vaccination, good cough and sneeze etiquette and above all, good hygiene. Proper food handling and preparation can prevent foodborne illnesses caused by bacteria such as salmonella, E.coli and campylobacter, which cause about 100 cases of illnesses in our county each year. So while MRSA is a concern, other threats are significant and, like MRSA, largely preventable.
Why all the “hype” over MRSA?
We are all busy and bombarded with things to do and new information to consider. Since most of us are not medical professionals, it can be really hard to know which threats are legitimate and what we should pay attention to. For reliable health information, you can visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Website, cdc.gov, or ask your doctor about the issue.
Thankfully, many diseases and infections including MRSA are preventable, but only if we take the steps to prevent them. Here is a quick recap: Keeping hands clean is one of the best ways to keep from getting sick and spreading illnesses. Cleaning your hands gets rid of germs you pick up from other people and from the surfaces you touch. When sneezing or coughing, cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve. Getting immunizations is easy and low-cost and, most importantly, it prevents severe disease and saves lives. Always use antibiotics as directed, remembering that misuse adds to the problems of bacteria developing resistance. Lastly, teaching your children to practice these healthy habits, too, will improve the health of your entire family.
Julie Graham is the spokesperson for the Spokane Regional Health District.