Life behind bars — with its close contact and sharing of soap and towels — has contributed to several prison and jail outbreaks of a hard-to-treat skin infection that health officials fear could easily spread to the outside.
Staphylococcus Aureus— a strain of staph infection that resists drugs — had previously only been found in hospitals. But now the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is finding infections among military recruits, sports teams and particularly in prisons and jails.
The CDC said the concern about the further spread of outbreaks that begin behind bars is due to the fact that one in every 142 U.S. residents was in prison or jail last year.
“If you look at especially jails, it is a dynamic equilibrium,” said Dr. Dan Jernigan, a CDC epidemiologist. “Individuals are coming in and out all the time.”
The CDC on Thursday highlighted several recent outbreaks in Georgia prisons, including the infection last year of more than 110 inmates at the Autry State Prison in Pelham that was among the biggest seen anywhere in the nation.
About 30 inmates were infected in 2001 and 2002 at Colwell Probation Detention Center in Blairsville, Ga. At a jail in Floyd County, Ga., 75 were infected, including two who had to be hospitalized.
Most of the prison outbreak infections happened because the bacteria is easily transmitted from person to person by skin-to-skin contact, exposure to contaminated surfaces or sharing personal items such as soap or towels.
Usually mild, the infections can lead to life-threatening blood or bone infections. Staph infections can appear as ordinary skin boils or wounds and diagnoses easily can be missed or result in treatments of antibiotics that aren’t effective.
Although the drug-resistant bacteria has been found in prisons all over the country, the CDC’s first investigation of a prison outbreak of the skin infection was in the South, in Mississippi in 2000.
Three years later, the same problems — bad hygiene and poor access to medical supplies and treatment — that led to the Mississippi outbreak still are plaguing prisons, Jernigan said.
Despite improvements, efforts to fight such infections in prisons face several built-in obstacles. Some prison officials consider soap to be a possible weapon. Alcohol-based handwashing gels, often taken for granted in hospitals, are highly flammable. Hard plastic inside soap dispensers can be broken and turned into makeshift knives. And soap is a unit of currency for inmates.