At least nine cases of drug-resistant staph infections have been reported to schools across the Inland Northwest in the past week – and more are sure to follow.
With three confirmed cases in Coeur d’Alene, three cases in Post Falls and three cases suspected in Spokane’s Roosevelt, Audubon and Jefferson elementary schools, concern about methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, has skyrocketed.
Health experts say growing awareness is likely behind the spike in MRSA reports. But school officials, seeking to calm worried parents, say they’ve adopted new protocols or emphasized existing plans to deal with the highly contagious and potentially dangerous germ.
Letters home, updated Web sites, serious scrubbing and classroom discussions are among accelerated efforts to ensure that parents and students respond appropriately to the threat of infection.
“We want to be as responsive as we can without blowing it out of true proportion,” said Judi Christianson, spokeswoman for the East Valley School District.
That can be a tricky line for school and health officials to straddle.
On one hand, MRSA, like other drug-resistant bacteria, have become more common and potentially more dangerous than ever before, said Dr. David Bare, medical director for the Community Health Association of Spokane.
That was underscored by recent research that showed serious MRSA infections affected 94,000 Americans in 2005 and killed nearly 19,000. The MRSA-related deaths of two teenagers in Brooklyn and Virginia also spread alarm.
The bug has been showing up more often in Spokane and across the region, where half of the infections he sees at Community Health Association are turning up positive for MRSA, Bare added.
“This is almost an epidemic,” Bare said. “It gets in a family and it’s hard to treat.” In one family under Bare’s care, the youngest child developed MRSA infections three times.
Most cases are minor skin infections, but MRSA can become life-threatening if it invades the body and reaches vital organs or the bloodstream. People with underlying medical conditions or weakened immune systems are more susceptible.
On the other hand, because minor MRSA cases can be cured, usually with oral antibiotics, they’re less of a threat to kids than other more common ailments, such as influenza, Bare said.
Some schools have responded to the alarm with increased cleanliness. In Coeur d’Alene, Ramsey Elementary School was sanitized from classrooms to playgrounds last week. But other districts said their existing procedures already are aimed to decrease infection. In the West Valley School District, staff members typically intensify cleaning efforts between November and March, the prime season for colds and flu.
“It’s nothing that we jump to because somebody has a case of MRSA,” said Sue Shields, the district spokeswoman.
And almost all districts say they plan increased communication about the issue. Thousands of families across the region were sent letters detailing how to prevent and treat MRSA. Schools with specific cases sent letters home about the individual events, a practice that will continue on a case-by-case basis, said Terren Roloff, a spokeswoman for the Spokane Public Schools.
“We’re reminding them that the best thing they can do is wash their hands and don’t share personal items,” Roloff said.
Parents shouldn’t panic about MRSA, Bare noted, but they should take the potential for infection seriously.
“You have to keep that in perspective,” he said. “If you list everything that kills kids, staph is not that high.”
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