updated 10/30/2007 9:34:14 AM ET 2007-10-30T13:34:14

Loyola University Medical Center on Monday announced plans to start testing all incoming patients for a drug-resistant staph germ and isolating those who carry the dangerous bacteria.

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The 589-bed hospital in Maywood, just west of Chicago, is among the first in Illinois to start universal screening for the superbug.

The germ in question is called MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus.

A new Illinois law requires hospitals to test high-risk and intensive-care patients for MRSA.

The nation’s Veterans Affairs hospitals began universal MRSA testing this year. And Evanston Northwestern Healthcare has reported a substantial drop in MRSA cases at its three suburban Chicago hospitals since it began universal testing in 2005.

Loyola officials say they’re launching universal screening because of recent reports suggesting the germ is becoming more widespread and success with pilot programs that have reduced infections at their hospital.

Several MRSA cases have been reported recently among students at schools in Illinois and around the nation, but health officials say intermittent cases are not unusual.

MRSA awareness has been heightened by the death of a Virginia student two weeks ago, followed by a government report estimating that more than 90,000 Americans get the most dangerous kind of MRSA infections each year.

The bacteria was blamed for the death of a 17-year-old Virginia high school senior and a 12-year-old New York City middle school student this month.

Disinfecting schools
Public schools in Mount Vernon, N.Y. are being disinfected after a worker and a student showed signs of a MRSA infection, authorities said.

Schools Superintendent W. L. Tony Sawyer said a high school employee and a third-grade student are being tested for MRSA. The bug is resistant to mainline penicillin antibiotics but can often be treated with other drugs. Without treatment it can be deadly.

Sawyer said the two will stay home from the schools — Edward Williams Elementary and Nelson Mandela Community High — until the test results are known.

Sawyer said that if either tests positive, the school system will redouble its efforts to disinfect. But medical authorities have said the schools will not need to close, he said.

At least seven students on New York’s Long Island were recently diagnosed with MRSA, as were 10 members of an athletic team at Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y.

Skin infection turns deadly
Most MRSA cases are relatively mild skin infections, but the bug can become life-threatening if it invades the body and infects the bloodstream or vital organs. Those at risk for this type of MRSA infection include hospitalized patients undergoing invasive procedures or with weakened immune systems.

Many people carry the bug on their skin or in their noses with no symptoms, but they can infect others if the germ makes contact with open wounds. These carriers are the focus of the new screening at Loyola.

“It is an important component of our overall plan to improve patient safety in all aspects of care,” said Dr. Paul Whelton, president and CEO of Loyola University Health System.

The program will involve nasal swabbing of all incoming patients. A rapid test will provide results within two hours. Carriers will then be isolated and treated. The program is slated to be up and running by the end of November.

While MRSA cases used to be found mainly in hospitals, they have been appearing in recent years in schools, prisons, gyms and poor urban neighborhoods.

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