World and Nation

Deadly Staph Infections Prompt Concern in American Classrooms

When the football players here at Sherwood High School were not getting the message about washing their uniforms and using only their own jerseys, the school nurse paid a surprise visit to the locker room.

She brought along a baseball bat.

“Don’t make me use this,” the nurse, Jenny Jones, said, pointing out that seven players on the team had already contracted a deadly drug-resistant strain of bacteria this year. “Start washing your hands,” she said. “I mean it.”

School officials around the country have been scrambling this week to scrub locker rooms, reassure parents and impress upon students the importance of good hygiene. The heightened alarm comes in response to a federal report indicating that the bacteria, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, are responsible for more deaths in the United States each year than AIDS.

MRSA is a strain of staph bacteria that does not respond to penicillin or related antibiotics, though it can be treated with other drugs. The infection can be spread by sharing items, like a towel or a piece of sports equipment that has been used by an infected person or through direct skin-to-skin contact with an open wound.

On Wednesday and Thursday, scores of schools were closed and events were canceled in Virginia, Ohio, Maryland, North Carolina and Connecticut as cleaning crews disinfected buses, lockers and classrooms. More closings are planned on Friday.

School officials in Virginia, New Hampshire and Mississippi reported student deaths within the past two weeks from the bacteria, while officials in at least four other states reported cases of students being infected.

The federal report, written by doctors at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that nearly 19,000 people had died in the United States in 2005 after an invasive MRSA infection. The study also suggested that such infections may be twice as common as previously thought.

This week, health officials began reporting a growing number of cases in schools, gyms and day-care centers, and not just in nursing homes and hospitals, as has often been the case in the past.

Nicole Coffin, a spokeswoman at the centers, said that while the results of the study are striking, it is important to realize that about 85 percent of the infections reported from the bacteria were in health care settings.

“MRSA in the community is typically a mild skin infection that rarely becomes life-threatening,” she said, adding that even when it does become more severe, the death rates for this type of infection are low.

Here in Sandy Spring, students seem to be getting the message that they need to take extra care.

“I think they’re taking it seriously now,” William Gregory, the principal at Sherwood High School, said of members of the football team. “She is pretty emphatic,” he said pointing to Jones. “But the students are also seeing the reports of deaths, and that has reminded them.”

He added that as he visits locker rooms now, the tell-tale stench is gone from athletes’ uniforms, and students are calling him and the nurse diligently when cuts do not seem to be healing.