MRSA precautions taken in local schools

Friday, November 23, 2007

Tribune News Staff

Parents in Poinsett County have been expressing concern about what precautions local schools are taking against a possible outbreak of methicillin-resistant staph infection (MRSA) after an Arkansas school closed briefly last week.

The Arkansas Department of Health released a news release last week in response to parental concern when the Palestine-Wheatley School District closed Nov. 12 after a student was hospitalized with a methicillin-resistance staph infection.

"We have received numerous calls from parents who are concerned that their schools aren't closing and cleaning in order to prevent the spread of staph infections," said Dr. James Phillips, Branch Chief, Infectious Diseases, of the Arkansas Department of Health. "This infection is spread by person-to-person contact in almost all cases. Therefore, closing schools for cleaning will have minimal impact and is not routinely recommended."

"The Palestine-Wheatley School closed as a proactive step," said Dr. Phillips. "We appreciate the difficult position of the school and understand their independent decision to encourage parent confidence in the school's clean environment."

According to Phillips, despite the recent interest in MRSA, the condition is nothing new. "We have been working diligently over the last several years to provide education materials about MRSA," he said. "We regularly release information to the media, we work with school districts that need our guidance and we have a website with a section on MRSA prevention."

Phillips said he is currently working with the Arkansas Department of Education to provide health information about MRSA to schools throughout Arkansas.

Education is the key here, and good personal hygiene is at the core of our messages for students," he said. "The real take-home message for parents is to encourage your children to wash their hands and wash their hands often. Children need to wash their hands after they go to the restroom, before they eat, any time their hands are dirty."

Karen Adams, nurse at Trumann High School (Grade 7-12), says the threat of MRSA is nothing new.

"We started educating our staff and our custodial workers about MRSA several years ago," she said. "We have had in-service training provided by St. Bernard's Regional Medical epidemiology nurses."

"All of our custodial staff, headed by Curtis Green, have been instructed on proper use of cleaning supplies," Adams said. "Each day the school is cleaned with anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-fungal cleaners. Surfaces in the school are wiped down daily."

A school nurse for 20 years, Adams says she understands parent's fears about MRSA.

"It is scary when you hear about this virus," she said. "But schools do not have staph, people have staph. Hand washing is the best preventative and I urge staff and students daily to wash their hands frequently."

The transmission of the bacteria that causes MRSA is by person-to-person contact. About one-third of the population carries the staph bacteria in their noses. It is extremely rare to develop MRSA from contact with surfaces such as desks and cafeteria tables.

At least 95 percent of community-acquired MRSA (CA-MRSA) infections appear on the skin or in the soft tissues. Most of these infections start out looking like a pimple or spider bite and may develop into boils or soft tissue infection, according to state health officials.

Most infections are usually mild and can be treated with incision and drainage with or without oral antibiotics and by covering the infected area, keeping it clean and dry.

Nurse Adams says all precautions are taken to prevent the spread of infection in the schools.

"I always wear gloves when treating students," she said. "We also use individual packets of antibiotic cream to prevent contamination of medication. If I do find a possible skin infection on a student, that student is sent to the doctor and is told to follow the doctor's orders."

"Since student athletes are high risk for the infection, we ask athletes not to share towels and to make sure athletic equipment is cleaned," Adams said.

Athletes are also urged to shower with soap and water as soon as possible after direct contact sports. Athletes are also urged to avoid sharing towels even on the sidelines at games.

Adams also urges students and school staff to use hand sanitizers when soap and water are not immediately available for hand washing.

Trumann School Superintendent Joe Waleszonia says he thinks the district is doing all it can to prevent an outbreak of staph.

"We're think we're doing all the things we can to keep students safe," he said. "I treat these kids at school as if they were mine. "We're taking precautions and using special cleaning techniques every day. If there is a need, we will make whatever adjustments necessary."

Marked Tree School Superintendent Gary Masters said his school district has been taking special precautions about the spread of infection for several years.

"We provide anti-bacterial handwipes in every elementary and high school classroom," he said. "Every classroom also has anti-bacterial spray provided."

He said training is also important.

"Our custodial staff has been trained in the proper use of cleaners throughout the school's campuses," he said. "These cleaners must be sprayed on and left to air dry to be effective."

Above all, student safety is important.

"We don't take any chances," Masters said. "We would immediately notify parents if any outbreak occurred."

Marked Tree school nurse Jean Cook oversees both elementary and high school campuses for the school system.

Masters said the Marked tree custodial staff will be working over the Thanksgiving holidays to clean surfaces in the Marked Tree field house and gym.

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