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Deadly superbug MRSA can linger on surfaces in the home for months

But good hygiene can help prevent the bacteria from spreading.
Image: MRSA colonies grow in a blood agar plate at a lab. The white areas around the colonies indicate where MRSA infection is attacking and destroying the red blood cells.
MRSA, or methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, is a bacterium that is resistant to many antibiotics. Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times via AP file

Once MRSA gets into households, the deadly superbug can take hold and spread easily, a study published Tuesday shows. And more often than not, the bacteria hitched rides into the homes on children.

Researchers found that in households of people with a MRSA infection, the bacteria can be found on surfaces including refrigerator handles, bath towels, light switches, video game controllers and even pets, according to the study in The Lancet Infectious Diseases. MRSA, or methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, is a bacterium that’s resistant to several antibiotics, including methicillin.

“It’s a hardy bacterium that lives on surfaces,” said study coauthor, Dr. Stephanie Fritz, an associate professor in the division of pediatric infectious diseases at Washington University in St. Louis. “People can pick it up and bring it home and the house can become colonized.”

Not long ago, MRSA infections were primarily associated with hospital stays, but since the turn of the century, the bacteria have been turning up in daily settings more frequently.

Before the late 1990s and early 2000s, the infection wasn’t a problem outside of hospitals, said Dr. Graham Snyder, medical director of infection prevention at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, who wasn’t involved with the new research.

People can become infected with MRSA if the bacteria enter the body through a break in the skin. Indeed, when people get MRSA outside of health care settings, the infections most often show up as skin infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms can include redness, swelling, pain and pus, and oftentimes, fever.

Snyder estimates that each year, around 11,000 people die from MRSA. If the infection spreads to the lungs, it can lead to pneumonia; if it gets into the bloodstream, it can lead to sepsis.

To learn more about how MRSA gets into homes and is then spread among the residents, Fritz and her colleagues focused on the households of 150 otherwise healthy St. Louis children, with an average age of 3, who went to a doctor or a hospital because of a MRSA infection.

Fritz and her colleagues visited each home five times over the course of a year and each time, they took samples from all family members’ nostrils, armpits and groins, as well as from the noses and backs of any household cats and dogs. At the outset, they asked the study participants more than 100 questions about hygiene and personal habits.

The researchers found MRSA on nearly half the people and on one-third of the pets at least once during the year. One surprising finding, Fritz said, was that it looked like people often were passing the bacteria on to their pets, rather than the other way around.

Another surprise was the length of time the bacteria survived on surfaces. “In one household when we went the very first time, we were told the video game controller hadn’t been touched in six months so we wouldn’t need to swab that,” Fritz said. “We swabbed it anyway and recovered MRSA.”

And while anyone can bring MRSA into the house, “we found children were more likely to be bringing new strains into the house than adults,” Fritz said.

Stopping the spread of MRSA

Despite the surprising findings, the researchers found that stopping the spread of MRSA could be achieved with simple good hygiene.

Indeed, the study found that the biggest protective factor against spreading MRSA was hand-washing, Fritz said. In households with a family member who had the infection, those who washed their hands with soap and water regularly were less likely to pick up the bacteria. MRSA was more likely to spread when people shared bedrooms, beds, towels or hygiene items such as razors and toothbrushes with someone who carried the bacteria.

As the study found, the best way to avoid bringing MRSA into your home is to wash your hands regularly, Snyder said. “For example, if you’ve been out and about in public doing errands and you’ve been touching elevator buttons and grocery carts, you should wash your hands when you come into the house,” he said.

Another important factor was how clean the home was, in terms of clutter, grime and odor.

This means that keeping the house neat and tidy could be helpful to reduce the spread of MRSA bacteria, said Dr. Meghan Davis, an assistant professor in the department of environmental health and engineering at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

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