PUBLIC HEALTH: Antibiotics-resistant infection isn’t a general health
BY PETER REBHAHN
NEWS TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
Five cases of a contagious drug-resistant infection at the Federal
Prison Camp in Duluth since January aren’t a public health threat, officials said Wednesday.
“This is the first time this institution has had to deal with MRSA,”
said John Caraway, acting camp warden.
MRSA is methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, a bacterium
resistant to antibiotics.
“In the last 10 years it’s become more frequent,” said Dr. Rajesh
Prabhu, infectious disease specialist at St. Mary’s/Duluth Clinic. “I see one to three cases a month myself in the office.”
Just one of the five infected people at the 863-inmate minimum-security prison in Duluth is still being treated for the infection. Prabhu said there’s no reason for alarm, but that the public should be aware that the staph infection is out there.
“Five (cases) is not dramatic, but it is an issue,” Prabhu said.
“There’s probably more cases in Duluth outside the prison than there are inside the prison.”
Drug-resistant Staphylococcus aureus bacteria, often referred to simply as “staph,” began turning up soon after the antibiotic penicillin came into common use in the 1940s.
Methicillin was one of the first antibiotics created to kill
penicillin-resistant staph, said Kathy Harriman, who supervises the
infection control and microbial resistance unit of the Minnesota Department of Health.
About one-third of the population carry non-MRSA staph bacteria. “It’s a very common bacteria and always has been,” Harriman said.
The most common MRSA infections take the form of boil-like skin
eruptions and are sometimes mistaken for spider bites.
The infections usually are not a serious problem for healthy people.
But an unhealthy person with a weakened immune system unable to fight the infection could be in danger, because regular antibiotics won’t kill it.
A few MRSA-caused deaths of otherwise healthy young people in Minnesota and a spurt of nonfatal MRSA cases in young people in the late 1990s sparked study at the Department of Health, Harriman said.
Drug-resistant MRSA occurs in two varieties. One is a problem in
hospitals, the other in community settings such as prisons.
“We’ve been able to establish that the strains in the community are
quite different,” Harriman said. “They’re not escaped hospital strains.”
Harriman and Prabhu agreed that the best defense against staph bacteria is good hygiene, especially frequent hand washing. MRSA scoffs at antibiotics, but it withers at the touch of soap or alcohol-based hand cleaners. “That’s really our message, as boring as that might be,” Harriman said.
Caraway said he enacted some changes after contacting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention abut the prison’s MRSA cases. The prison has organized informational meetings for inmates, changed soaps, beefed up overall sanitation and provided spray disinfectant in exercise areas.
“We’re encouraging them (inmates) to spray down the weight benches between uses,” Caraway said.