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MRSA report spreads panic

Tue., Oct. 30, 2007

Reports of drug-resistant staph infections at a Coeur d’Alene elementary school prompted parents to keep their children home Monday, even as health officials urged families to learn more – and remain calm.

“We deal with this every day in the hospital,” said Marty Fallon, director of infection control at Kootenai Medical Center. “Today is no different than any other day.”

Still, absences at Ramsey Elementary School were four or five times the normal rate Monday after two students and a staff member were confirmed to have cuts or sores infected with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, said Pam Pratt, district director of elementary education.

“About half of the parents I talked to said they’d just feel better keeping their kids at home,” she said.

But health experts said there was no need to stay away from school.

“I wouldn’t panic,” said Roy Almeida, epidemiologist at Spokane’s Sacred Heart Medical Center. “These infections are fairly common.”

Parents and some members of the media have been overreacting to new research released this month that showed MRSA is more common than previously thought, and the infection killed nearly 19,000 people in the U.S. in 2005, health officials said.

“When we label it ‘superbug’ and ‘killer,’ that’s what happens,” said Randi Lustig, epidemiology program manager for Panhandle Health District.

The Coeur d’Alene incident, which is too small to qualify as an outbreak, began Oct. 23, when a doctor told Angela Loisels her first-grade daughter had a MRSA infection.

Loisels, who had thought the inflamed area was a spider bite, contacted school officials and was surprised when staff told her no letter would be sent to other parents. So Loisels took her case to a television station.

“Nobody was going to do anything – they weren’t even going to make them aware or tell what to look for,” Loisels said Monday. “They weren’t willing to do anything until I went public with it.”

MRSA cases were confirmed later in another child in a different class and in a staff member, said Janet Feiler, district spokeswoman.

MRSA is not a condition reported to health officials, but there likely are hundreds of cases of the minor infections in the Inland Northwest each year, Fallon said. Most get better on their own.

District officials consulted with health district staff, who advised that it wasn’t necessary to close the school. Janitorial workers spent much of the weekend and early Monday sanitizing classrooms, desks, floors – even computer stations and doorknobs. Playground equipment and buses were also washed with antibacterial solutions, Feiler said.

Letters went out Friday to parents of Ramsey students, but another letter was being sent Monday to all 10,300 district students, said Harry Amend, district superintendent.

Amend said he sympathized with parents worried about recent reports of the deaths of a boy in Brooklyn and a girl in Virginia who contracted invasive forms of MRSA. But he said the district was taking every precaution.

“We’re going to go one step at a time and stay in close contact with parents,” he said.

That’s not enough for Loisels, who said the incident shook her faith in the school. Although her doctor said her daughter could return to school last week, “I kept her home,” she said.

Loisels said the situation was stressful for her family. They”ve canceled Halloween plans and are hesitant to hand out candy. She’s reluctant to send her daughter back to the school and worried about allowing her two youngest sons to attend the school once they’re old enough.

At least one Ramsey parent, however, said the incident was blown out of proportion.

“I think that the media has not done a good job of educating people,” said Jenni Hughes, co-treasurer of the school’s PTA.

Hughes, a registered nurse, said she has no worries about sending her second-grader to school, and that parents need to learn more about MRSA.

“Today’s probably the cleanest that the school has been,” Hughes said.

It’s important for parents and others to understand MRSA is not new, Lustig said. First detected in the 1960s, it’s become increasingly common as the bacteria have developed resistance to many front-line antibiotics. That doesn’t mean that it’s resistant to all antibiotics, however, she emphasized.

“People should understand that it’s treatable and people get better,” she said.

Drug resistance is a growing problem, not only with MRSA, but also with strains of strep bacteria and tuberculosis, she said.

“The real issue is for the community to come to terms with the fact that we live with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics,” Lustig said. “What we need to know is how to live with them.”


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