10/29/07 — Schools take aim at staph infection

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Schools take aim at staph infection

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on October 29, 2007 1:46 PM

The best way to ward off an outbreak of MRSA, officials say, can be boiled down to the same long-held recommendation for preventing the flu -- frequent hand-washing.

"If I had to say it in three words -- wash your hands," said Cathy Hollowell, manager of infectious disease control at Wayne Memorial Hospital.

MRSA, Methicillin-resistant Staphyloccus aureus, is a life-threatening staph infection recently thrust into the national spotlight after the death of a Virginia high school student. But in actuality, MRSA has been around for decades.

Allison Pridgen, director of student support services with Wayne County Public Schools, said she has been disappointed in how MRSA has been portrayed on television, as if it is some new plague that has come on the scene.

"Staph has been around forever. MRSA is just a mutated form of that," she said.

Mrs. Hollowell said part of the reason that MRSA has come into prominence is because of overuse of antibiotics in the medical field. Rampant prescribing of drugs has resulted in an immunity among patients, she said. Thus, when MRSA strikes, the body is resistant to treatment.

While hospitals and medical facilities have dealt with staph infections for years, the latest developments have made the public more aware.

The district has been actively doing its part to keep schools as sanitary and safe for children as possible, Mrs. Pridgen said. Regular training efforts for staff have always been required through Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, she said.

"(Custodians) are the first responders for clean up in their role as custodians," she said.

Lately, the school system is looking at a "ramped-up effort in areas such as restrooms where students have a tendency to have contact with each other."

That also extends to locker rooms and athletic events such as wrestling, she added.

Already, principals and assistant principals, athletic directors, social workers, nurses and guidance counselors have been given information to share with staff and students on how to prevent the spread of MRSA and staph bacteria, Mrs. Pridgen said. Athletic director Dean Sauls also met with the physical education staff to address the potential dangers.

In addition to custodians taking such actions as wiping down lockers and spraying down locker rooms, bathrooms and weight rooms, teachers have been instructed to make extra efforts to keep their classrooms clean, by appropriately disinfecting items and areas frequently used -- such as light switches, doorknobs, desks and keyboards.

"MRSA can live on a surface, an inanimate object, for up to 30 days," Mrs. Hollowell said. "In the hospital, you and I might be perfectly healthy. What we want to prevent is that drug-resistant organism, and there are many of those, that MRSA, from being contracted by another patient."

Mrs. Hollowell was enlisted to conduct a training for custodians in the school system last week. She said some of her information might not be much different from their current practices, but could likely reinforce their efforts.

Part of the problem is that MRSA is not airborne, but through contact transmission, she explained. So there needs to be an awareness about surface-to-skin contact -- touching unclean sports equipment, keyboards, phones, desktops, doorknobs, even sharing soap or razors, to name a few.

"There's really nothing to be scared about," she noted, provided consistent safeguards are taken.

"Hand washing is the most important thing that we can do, that our kids can do."

And while it may sound simplistic, she proceeded to demonstrate just how to do that.

"With warm soapy water, use friction and scrub for 20 seconds," she said, offering the suggestion to "sing the Happy Birthday song to yourself twice.

"Don't cut the water off -- get a paper towel and cut off the water with that, because your hands were dirty when you first cut the water on. Hang on to that paper towel, (and) use it to open the door to leave the rest room."

She said she favors putting up signs in school and public restrooms, containing reminders about the importance of hand washing and the proper way to do that.

"We're doing that at the hospital," she said. And, she added, on occasions when soap and water are not available, using a 60 percent alcohol-based hand sanitizer can be a good substitute.

Mrs. Hollowell said she would also recommend purchasing large hand sanitizers in the schools.

"These two things," she said, holding up her hands, "are our best offense and defense."

Keeping the spread of MRSA out of the schools will take a collaborative effort, said Sprunt Hill, assistant superintendent for auxiliary services. It also extends to maintenance, operations and transportation workers, he noted.

"We are not only making sure our custodians take extra efforts to keep schools disinfected, but we are also talking to our bus drivers to help ensure our buses are disinfected after student use," he said.

Parents can also help by seeking medical attention if a child shows signs of skin infections that could possibly be MRSA. Mrs. Hollowell described such infections as exhibiting the appearance of a spider bite or boil.