Schools find staph strain case

Prince William County Schools recently reported a case of an antibiotic-resistant strain of a staph infection in one of its high schools, the same strain that killed a 17-year-old Bedford County student on Monday.

“I can confirm that there was a Prince William County high school student, within the last two weeks, that had MRSA,” said Lucy Caldwell, Northern Virginia regional spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Health.

Methicillin-resistant staphylococcus infection, MRSA, resists treatment with penicillin and related antibiotics. Like other staph infections, MRSA, pronounced “mersa,” typically spreads through open cuts or scrapes or by contact with contaminated surfaces.

“We were notified and assisted the [Prince William County] school in making sure they were following the proper protocols,” she said.

Due to privacy concerns, Caldwell said she could not release the name of the school, nor any information about the student.

The school was not closed for cleaning nor was an informational letter sent to parents, Caldwell said.

Repeated phone calls to Prince William County Schools Director of Community Services Ken Blackstone on Tuesday afternoon were not returned.

“Each time a case is reported to the health department, health officials work with the school to assess the level of risk for each situation,” Caldwell said. “Ultimately, the school will make the decision whether or not to send home a letter.”

In the Prince William MRSA case, “health officials had decided that adequate health prevention measures had already been taken and that the risk of spread to others was minimal,” Caldwell said.

Once more commonly found in nursing homes and hospitals, health officials across the state and country are finding more cases of MRSA in other settings, such as schools.

“While Virginia Health has been working on MRSA, it has not been considered a community issue but I think that appears to be changing,” Caldwell said. “We used to typically see it in long-term care and health care situations, but now we are seeing it in other settings.”

Many of the infections are being spread in gyms and locker rooms, where football players and other athletes – perhaps suffering from cuts or abrasions – share sports equipment, officials say.

“MRSA can occur by touching an object contaminated with the germ, on clothes, towels, athletic equipment or benches in locker rooms,” Caldwell said. “When you find this situation, there are a lot of things you need to do to take care of them. It’s quite labor intensive.”

Bedford County’s Staunton River High School senior Ashton Bonds died after being hospitalized for more than a week with complications of a MRSA infection, which generally is not life threatening.

“[MRSA deaths] are very, very rare,” Caldwell said.

Bond’s death has drawn national attention to the dangers of the ever-spreading disease.

About 18,000 Americans died of MRSA in 2005 – more than were killed by AIDS -and almost 100,000 contracted it that year, according to a study released this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The study did not include comprehensive information from all states. Virginia MRSA cases were not included.

Caldwell said that the Virginia Health Department does not require schools or other institutions to report individual cases of MRSA. Clusters, or outbreaks, do need to be reported.

State statistics show that there were four outbreaks of MRSA statewide in 2005; five in 2006; and as of Oct. 11, three outbreaks so far this year, Caldwell said.

“All of those this year occurred in the southwest region of Virginia,” she said.

While not required to do so, schools are reporting individual occurrences.

“In many, many cases, the school or institution will go ahead and follow the appropriate guidelines and take care of the situation itself,” she said. “It would not be uncommon at all if we were unaware of a particular case.”

Caldwell said although she did not have the specific information about other MRSA cases in schools in the Northern Virginia region, she was confident that there were others.

Following Bonds’ death and several other cases involving students, Bedford County closed all 21 of its schools Tuesday for cleaning and disinfection.

Last week, Rappahannock County High School, along with Rappahannock Elementary School, extended a planned two-day closure by another day for cleaning and disinfection. The move came after several cases of MRSA were identified at the high school.

Symptoms of a wound contaminated with staph infections such as MRSA, include redness, burning or pus. It can look like a pimple, an abscess or spider bites. Treatment includes draining and cleaning as well as antibiotics when appropriate.

“Certainly not every staph infection turns out to be MRSA,” Caldwell said. “But, if you have a wound that is not healing and you are in a riskier situation you may want to get it checked out by your physician.”

With schools across the country reporting outbreaks of staph infections, including MRSA, health officials are issuing reminders about the importance of thorough hand washing. Additionally, they advice keeping cuts and scrapes clean and covered, avoiding contact with others’ wounds and bandages, to avoid sharing personal items such as towels, showering after physical activity or sports and proper cleaning and disinfection of sports equipment and gear.

More information about MRSA can be found on the CDC’s Web site, and the state department of health’s Web site at