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Schools on alert for drug-resistant staph

CONYERS - School officials in Rockdale and Newton counties are trying to take a proactive approach to prevent an outbreak of a drug-resistant staph infection that has been reported in other metro Atlanta schools.

There have been no reports of the drug-resistant staph, MRSA, or methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus, in either Rockdale or Newton counties, but plenty of concern has arisen as reports of incidents come in from nearby schools.

Five middle-school students in Henry County were found to have been infected with the drug-resistant staph last week. On Friday, two students, one at Augusta State University and the other at Dougherty County Schools, were reported to have become infected with the MRSA.

Staph is a common skin infection in the United States. The MRSA is a staph strain that has developed a resistance to traditional antibiotics. A recent national medical study revealed the MRSA is more widespread than once believed.

Staph is spread by direct physical contact. The bacteria can also be spread when people come into contact with objects that have been contaminated. Those objects include clothing, towels,

bedding, gym equipment and bandages.

At Eastside High School in Covington, school officials said they are trying to get as much information about MRSA as possible to faculty, students and parents.

Eastside Assistant Principal Dennis Roddenberry said the school deals with staph infections every year; however, recent media attention to the MRSA has made some parents nervous.

Last week, the school received several calls from concerned parents when word of a single report of another, more easily treatable staph infection made the rounds.

"The last thing we want to do is endanger students' lives," Roddenberry said. "If we had something like (MRSA) occur, the public would know right away, and the first people we would call would be the parents."

Roddenberry said the school has given all teachers bulletins on staph from the county health department. Also, he has met with the athletic coaches to discuss what they need to do to keep equipment and lockers as safe as possible.

The school's custodial staff has also been made aware of keeping surfaces clean and "are doing the best job they can to keep everything clean," he said.

Rockdale County Public Schools officials are also dispersing information to staff and faculty. School administrators have asked parents through the school system's ConnectEd phone system to be more aware of the personal hygiene of their children as a method to avoid staph infections.

Health officials said staph, even the drug-resistant strain, is very common. The best defense against staph is basic personal hygiene practices, such as frequent handwashing and keeping skin infections or wounds covered. Cleaning fixtures and equipment that many people come into contact with is also recommended.

Vernon G. Goins, spokesman for the East Metro Health District, said staph is such a common occurrence that the only criteria to report MRSA to the health department is when someone is treated for the ailment at the hospital.

The health department does not require schools to report MRSA incidents, but they are advised of preventive measures to take.

And while antibiotics may not be effective against MRSA, Goins said staph is still treatable, though it may take longer to recover and require a doctor to physically treat the wound.

"Most often the body will fight it off, but sometimes a person with a compromised immune system may have trouble and the bacteria will take advantage of that and set up shop," Goins said.

The worst case scenario is when an infection is left alone. Goins advised to seek medical help at the first signs of a staph infection, which often appears like a spider bite at first and can develop into boils, blisters or rashes.

The East Metro Health District offer information on MRSA at the Web site http://gwinnett.ga.gegov.com/gwinnett/content/MRSA.pdf.

Jay Jones can be reached at jay.jones@rockdalecitizen.com.

SideBar: At a glance

MRSA, methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus, is a strain of staph bacteria that does not respond to penicillin and related antibiotics but can be treated with other drugs. The infection can be spread by skin-to-skin contact or through sharing an item used by an infected person, particularly one with an open wound.

The East Metro Health District, which includes Newton, Rockdale and Gwinnett counties, offered the following preventative steps individuals can take to reduce the risk of infection.

' Keep your hands clean by washing thoroughly with soap and water or using an alcohol-based sanitizer.

' Keep cuts and scrapes clean and covered with a bandage until healed.

' Avoid contact with other people's wounds or bandages.

' Don't share personal items such as towels or razors.

Source: East Metro Health District