Schools across the country are reporting outbreaks of staph infections, particularly among athletes, and the germs include an antibiotic-resistant strain that is sometimes associated with serious skin problems and blood disorders.
The infections have forced districts to call off classes, cancel sporting events and disinfect entire buildings. Several students have been hospitalized.
Many of the infections are being spread in gyms and locker rooms, where athletes — perhaps suffering from cuts or abrasions — share sports equipment.
In Virginia, a Newport News high school closed its weight room Thursday to be disinfected after at least four students were infected — one with the drug-resistant strain. The drug-resistant patient, a football player, was hospitalized for three days.
On Friday, the high school in Galax, Va., postponed a football game because of an infection on its football team. School officials said they could not clean the equipment in time for the kickoff.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta does not track staph infections but confirmed that the cases seem to be more widespread than in the past.
The drug-resistant strain, called methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus strain, or MRSA, can be especially stubborn. It resists treatment with penicillin and related antibiotics but can be treated with other drugs.
School outbreaks growing more common
The potentially fatal germ typically thrives in health care settings where people have open wounds. But in recent years, outbreaks have also occurred in schools.
Virginia public schools spokesman Charles Pyle said the Education Department's health specialist has received about eight calls about the problem since school started. Last year, he received only two calls during the entire fall semester.
"We're not viewing this as something to be overly alarmed about," Pyle said.
He said the department will send information about prevention and treatment to Virginia's 132 school districts for distribution to schools and parents.
MRSA is spread mostly through personal contact, although sharing towels, razors or athletic equipment also can spread the bacteria. Frequent and thorough hand-washing is one of the most important preventive measures, said Coffin, of the CDC.
In neighboring Maryland, more than two dozen staph infections have been reported by four Anne Arundel County high schools over the past three weeks. School officials said cleaning crews have been scrubbing all 12 high schools with hospital disinfectant.
In western Ohio, 800 students at Troy Christian Schools were sent home early Tuesday as a precaution after at least one student contracted MRSA. Superintendent Gary Wilber said classrooms, lockers, student belongings, buses and other equipment were disinfected.
At least three other Ohio high schools disinfected their facilities after students reported staph infections.
Health officials in North Carolina and Florida also noted an increase in staph infections.
Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y., reported two cases of MRSA involving athletes last month, and at least two dozen athletes at three New Hampshire schools recently came down with skin infections.