By JEFFERSON WEAVER
Health officials hope encouraging better hygiene and following strict protocols can prevent the MRSA virus from becoming more of a problem in Columbus County.
Columbus Regional already has close enforcement of hand hygiene and patient isolation rules to avoid spread of the drug-resistant bug. The infection has been blamed for several deaths across the country in recent weeks, and is turning up in previously unaffected portions of the population.
Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, better known as MRSA or simply staph, was previously rare outside of hospitals and nursing homes, but in recent years the virulent strain of MRSA has begun appearing in schools, prisons, and the general population.
Miranda Dufour, who is in charge of Infection Control and Employee Health at Columbus Regional, said the hospital was already on a prevention platform for the disease, which has no vaccination of cure.
“We’ve been monitoring it closely,” Dufour said. “That’s been the case since 2005, when we became aware this could be a growing problem.”
Community-related MRSA, according to the state Department of Health, can be treated with medicines. Hospital-associated MRSA, the more virulent strain, is the one doctors are worried about.
The disease became a major concern to health officials in the 1990s, when people with no connection to medical facilities began showing signs of HA-MRSA.
The variation of the disease was noticed in 2005 in North Carolina. Day care centers and schools have been the hardest hit by the disease, which the Centers for Disease control estimates will kill more people than the AIDS virus next year.
MRSA infections can appear as a spider or infected insect bite.
This changes into a “red hot pimple,” Dufour said, and may be followed by flu-like symptoms. The disease usually causes powerful infections to the rest of the body.
MRSA is carried by many people who never exhibit symptoms or get sick.
“A lot of people can be colonized in their skin, nose or armpits,” Dufour said, “and never show an active infection.”
The disease is spread through skin-to-skin contact, or by extended contact with articles that carry the germ, like towels, washcloths and razors. MRSA can also be transmitted through the handles of shopping carts, telephones and athletic equipment.
Dufour said medical professionals are eyeing the bug because it is appearing in greater numbers in the general population. The hospital has taken a strong preventative stance on the disease, Dufour said.
“We are concerned,” she said. “MRSA has always been there, especially in hospitals and nursing homes, but when it started moving out into other places it became even more serious.”
The hospital already checks nursing home or long-term care patients for MRSA, Dufour said.
If a patient tests positive for the bug – either through an active case or by being colonized, or carrying the disease – he or she is isolated from other patients. Staff members also wear gowns and other protective gear whenever they treat a colonized patient.
“We also practice strict handwashing hygiene throughout the hospital,” Dufour said, “and we encourage anyone visiting the hospital to do the same.”
Dispensers with alcohol-based sanitizers are set up throughout the hospital, and some members of the staff carry individual bottles.
It’s a habit Dufour said health officials encourage for the general population, too.
“You can get the personal size bottles almost anywhere,” she said. “There are small ones that fit perfectly in a child’s lunchbox or bookbag, and everyone should have some available if they go to a store or other public place where contact is likely.”
The germ commonly turns up in infants with skin abcesses, Dufour said, and children who spend time in close quarters.
The state Department of Health has issued special advisories on MRSA for schools and athletic organizations, since a 17-year-old Virginia youth contracted the disease while playing high school sports.
Several members of a North Carolina high school team were also infected recently and are being treated.
Health clubs and gyms have also been put on notice, Dufour said, because the germ can be spread through sweat from an infected person.
Others at risk are people with poor general hygiene, anyone who lives in a confined space, intravenous drug users, and people with chronic illnesses such as renal failure or diabetes.
“If you’re in generally good health, “ Dufour said, “just keep an eye on anything suspicious.”
While there is no antibiotic that can treat the disease, Dufour said there is a simple way to prevent it.
“Good handwashing hygiene is the best preventative,” she said. “Washing your hands in warm soapy water for 15 to 20 seconds will eliminate much of the danger.”
Dufour said there has been a rise in calls to area doctors about the disease, especially from concerned parents and people who notice insect bites.
“Not every bite or pimple is MRSA,” Dufour said. Keep any suspicious wound clean, dry and covered, Dufour said, and if there is no improvement in a few days, “call your doctor.”
The wound will then be drained and the infection tested to determine if the patient has staph, Dufour said. Sometimes the problem can be treated with draining by a doctor.
The disease has historically struck older people, Dufour said, but the new strain is increasingly taking aim at young people, especially children.
To avoid spreading the disease, the hospital has also asked that parents not allow young children to crawl into hospital beds with patients.
“You hate to have to say something like that,” Dufour said, “but if a person is infected, and a little one crawls into bed with grandma – then you have two infected people, not just one.”
Both the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the state Department of Health have set up a special website on MRSA.
For more on diagnosing and preventing the spread of the disease, go to the state site at www.epi.state.nc.us/epi/gcdc/ca_mrsa, or the federal site at www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dhqp/ar_mrsa_ca_public.html.