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Doctor: Number of MRSA cases seen at children's hospital has 'exploded'

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Posted: Saturday, October 20, 2007 12:00 am

Preventing MRSA infections

> Practice good hygiene, especially regular hand washing.

> Do not share personal items such as towels or razors.

> Thoroughly clean shared items –- toys, telephones, keyboards –- using a 1:100 bleach-water solution.

> Cover open wounds or cuts with a clean, dry bandage.

> Seek medical attention if symptoms occur.

> Schools and employers in close-contact settings should create infection containment policies and provide prevention information to employees.

Source: Texas Department of State Health Services

South Texas was one of the first places in the country to see an outbreak of serious infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria. And hundreds of area children are still hospitalized every year with severe infections.

Since 2000, Driscoll Children’s Hospital’s Dr. Jaime Fergie has seen a sharp increase in the number of South Texas children and young adults who come to the facility with complications from exposure to methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus.

A form of the common staph bacteria, MRSA (commonly pronounced MUR’-suh) doesn’t respond to most antibiotics and can spread quickly throughout the body if undetected.

“The number of cases just exploded,” Fergie said. “We started seeing 300 to 400 hospitalizations a year, when before that we’d have maybe one. … And these weren’t just minor skin infections, but life-threatening illness.”

Fergie said some of his most severe cases have come from the Rio Grande Valley.

“We don’t know why, but we were one of the first places to see this,” he said. “Now it’s spreading all over the country.”

Many doctors and experts had already sounded the alarm about MRSA, but it took the recent death of a Virginia high school student to capture the public’s attention.

Ashton Bonds, 17, of Moneta, Va., died Monday from a severe MRSA infection. Other schools throughout the country have since reported cases of MRSA infection among students.

One mother thinks the attention is long overdue.

Peyton Spence nearly lost her daughter, Hunter, 12, to a MRSA infection in May that rapidly took over the girl’s entire body. In less than a week, Hunter went from feeling a little pain in her leg to being on a ventilator at Driscoll, fighting for her life.

“The doctor said it didn’t look good for her — as progressed as the disease was, he thought she had a 20 percent chance of pulling through,” said Spence, who lives in Victoria.

The doctors who saw Hunter early on attributed her leg cramps to “growing pains” and her fever to the flu. By the time a doctor decided to test her for MRSA, the bacteria had invaded Hunter’s blood, bones and organs.

Today, the youngster is recovering, although she can’t breathe as well as before, her mother said.

Spence said she doesn’t blame the doctors for not testing for MRSA, but said she wants to make sure healthcare providers and parents are educated about the infection.

“All it would have taken was a simple blood culture that very first day,” she said. “She could have been treated with oral antibiotics.”

Numerous Valley children have similar stories, according to Fergie.

“Some children have died. Others have come for lengthy hospitalizations,” he said. “Fortunately, a lot more of the severely ill are surviving.”

A silent epidemic

Children and adults nationwide have contracted serious MRSA infections, according to new research.

A recent study from The Journal of the American Medical Association found that MRSA caused more than 94,000 life-threatening infections in 2005 and almost 19,000 deaths. Most MRSA infections are contracted in a hospital or healthcare setting, but increasingly children and adults are catching staph infections in the larger community.

Many people never get sick from staph, however. The bacteria are fairly common — about one-third of the population carries the bacteria on their skin or in their nose, according to the Mayo Clinic. Healthy people can be carriers of the bacteria and never develop an infection.

The problem starts when staph enters the body through a cut or wound. Most people only develop minor skin problems from that, but elderly adults and people with suppressed immune systems can see much more serious infections, experts say. Children are especially vulnerable.

“We see babies, (toddlers), all the way up to teenagers,” Fergie said of Driscoll’s patients affected by MRSA.

Although children who participate in contact sports or live in crowded conditions are more likely to acquire staph infections in the community, the infections aren’t confined to just athletes, Fergie added.

“The majority of the kids we see here don’t have a sports affiliation,” he said.

Slowing the spread

Some local hospitals and schools aren’t taking any chances when it comes to preventing MRSA infections, officials said.

At Valley Regional Medical Center in Brownsville, healthcare workers are following several steps to avoid MRSA contamination, said Honeylane DeSosa, infection-control coordinator.

The hospital screens some high-risk patients when they come through the door, she said. Patients who are transferred from other hospitals or are undergoing major surgeries could be at greater risk of MRSA infection, so they’re tested for staph, DeSosa said.

Also, everyone who enters a patient’s room — whether healthcare workers or visitors — must wash their hands or use hand sanitizer first, she said. And patients are urged to check to make sure they do, she said.

Experts say MRSA infections in hospitals are most commonly acquired through hand contact.

Local school athletic coaches say they’re stopping children from sharing towels — another way MRSA can be spread — and are taking extra steps to disinfect equipment.

“We’re aware that it can spread like wildfire,” said Richard Flores, athletic director for the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo school district. In 2004, at least three PSJA High School football players developed MRSA infections, and one ended up in the hospital.

“Since that time, we’ve posted a lot of signs on staph infections,” Flores said. “We’ve just got to keep doing it, being careful.”

MRSA infections are a threat that communities should take seriously, Fergie said.

“I don’t want to be alarmist. A majority of people will just have simple skin infections,” he said. “But for a few, it’s going to be life-threatening, and it’s going to get worse.”


Melissa McEver covers health and environment issues for Valley Freedom Newspapers. She is based in Harlingen and you can reach her at (956) 430-6252.

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