October 19, 2007 / 7:49 PM / 12 years ago

U.S. health experts seek to calm schools over superbug

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The headlines are disturbing — schools closing for disinfection, a 17-year-old dead from a drug-resistant “superbug.” But health officials said on Friday it is no new emergency and the best way to deal with the bacteria is simply to wash your hands.

A 1998 colorized scanning electron micrograph depicts a group of methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). The bug made headlines this week because of a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association that it caused 94,000 serious infections and nearly 19,000 deaths in 2005 -- most of them in hospitals. REUTERS/Janice Carr/CDC/Handout

The bug causing most of the concern is Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA — a version of an everyday bacteria that causes pimples, sinus infection and, in rare cases, meningitis and blood infections.

What is worrying about MRSA is that it resists commonly used antibiotics — but not all drugs.

“Extreme measures to ‘disinfect’ an environment like a school really aren’t what is going to be most important in controlling transmission of MRSA,” Dr. Arjun Srinivasan, an epidemiologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a telephone interview.

The bug made headlines this week because of a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association that it caused 94,000 serious infections and nearly 19,000 deaths in 2005 — most of them in hospitals.

Then 21 schools in Bedford County, Virginia, were closed after a 17-year-old student died of an MRSA infection. Charles Pyle, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education, said a thorough cleaning was being done.

Many school districts, including the one in Washington, D.C., contacted parents to reassure them that there had been no cases of MRSA at their schools.

The Senate even passed an amendment on Thursday requiring the Agency for Health Research Quality within the Department of Health and Human Services to use $5 million to identify and suppress the spread of MRSA.

“This is a dangerous and deadly germ which is spreading all over the country,” said Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, the amendment’s sponsor. “It is costing schools and communities thousands of dollars to clean up but the cost to human life and suffering is growing faster.”

But CDC officials say there is no new emergency and nothing has changed.

“We understand why people are concerned. But we also want to emphasize that MRSA infections are common,” said Srinivasan.

“MRSA is a common cause of skin infection. Almost all of these infections are readily treated by commonly available antibiotics and by draining the lesions.”

He added: “It is not glamorous but it is very true — hand hygiene is by far the best means to prevent the spread of all diseases.”

Schools may also be prudent to disinfect surfaces in places like locker rooms or common showers that someone with a scrape or an open cut or boil may to touch, said Srinivasan.

“But contamination of the environment by MRSA has not been the predominant factor in transmission of MRSA. What we have found is that most of this transmission seems to occur from direct contact.”

The CDC said it planned to place guidance for schools on its Web site, www.cdc.gov.

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