The threat of MRSA: Should you be scared?

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Television commercials to the contrary, it’s impossible to make the world germ-free, and there is no need to panic over each new disease that makes the headlines.

That was the reassuring message given by Opal Stalker, public health supervisor for the Montezuma County Health Department, at a presentation in Cortez Feb. 26.

Stalker gave the presentation to staff at the Cortez Public Library and volunteers for the Bridge Emergency Shelter because of concerns about MRSA, methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus. MRSA is a strain of a common staph germ but is more difficult to treat because it is antibiotic-resistant.

“Staph is everywhere,” Stalker said. “There are several species of bacteria. If people have a skin infection, the most likely culprit is staph, but that doesn’t mean it’s methicillin-resistant.”

Staph germs of one kind or another are found on the skin and in the nose of almost everyone, she said. Staph germs are so common that MRSA is not a reportable disease such as tuberculosis.

The strain called MRSA was identified in 1961. It was almost exclusively contracted in hospitals at that time.

But in the 1990s it began spreading into the community, Stalker said. Now, MRSA in hospitals seems to be on the decline but the illness is on the rise among the general populace, even healthy people.

The infection usually starts as a boil or abscess; it may look like a spider bite. If not treated it can become septicemia, a blood infection. “If you have a wound that’s draining or isn’t getting better, you need to see a doctor,” Stalker said. A doctor will lance it with sterile equipment and ascertain whether you need antibiotic treatment; sometimes just draining the wound is enough. He or she may prescribe an antibiotic cream to reduce staph germs in your nose or on your skin.

MRSA is generally not airborne, but in some cases it can spread from a person’s nose to the lungs, in which case the germs could be spread if the person coughs or sneezes.

People can carry MRSA and spread it without actually being infected with it or feeling ill.

MRSA can be contracted if someone with an open cut touches an item that was touched by someone with an open, infected wound. Athletes sharing towels or gym equipment can be exposed. People housed in close quarters, such as nursing-home patients and jail inmates, are also at risk.

The MRSA germ can last up to several days on a surface, depending whether it’s porous or not, whether it’s in the sunlight, and so on.

The best defenses against all germs remain simple: vigorous hand-washing (friction is important) for at least 20 seconds; not sharing towels with strangers; washing towels and sheets in very hot water, perhaps even with bleach.

And, of course, people have natural defenses — skin and clothes are a barrier to germs, and healthy immune systems can fight off many invaders.

“I don’t think the average person should be terribly concerned,” said Lori Cooper, director of public health for the county health department. “Just follow general precautions. Wash your hands, and if you’re on antibiotics, make sure you take the full round. If you have wounds or scrapes, cover them.”

The use of cleaning “wipes” on grocery- store carts, library keyboards or other surfaces touched by many people can also help, Stalker said. She advised library staff to clean surfaces every day and to get rid of any children’s toys that can’t be disinfected daily.

The MRSA threat has prompted lawenforcement offices to intensify cleaning procedures for patrol cars. There are already strict procedures for the jail, Wallace said.

It’s understandable that workers who come into contact with large numbers of people — especially some who may have compromised immune systems, such as street people, hospital patients and nursing-home residents — are worried, Stalker said. MRSA is out there and definitely can be serious or fatal.

The Bridge shelter already has a policy that it won’t house someone with a MRSA infection, but would try to get them care or even give them blankets.

Stalker emphasized that even if someone contracts a MRSA infection, it is treatable with powerful antibiotics. Local hospitals all can treat the infection. “With prompt treatment, there is a very good likelihood of success,” she said.

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From March 2009.