Staphylococcus is a term that has filled the ears of every news-watcher in recent months. And no, it’s not a new character on Sesame Street. It is a group of bacteria, also known as staph bacteria, which has the potential to cause a multitude of diseases due to infection of various tissues in the body. As a society, it is important to be aware of the bacteria, but we must recognize how it can affect us individually. “It’s like hearing a plane crashed in a small foreign country and everyone starts thinking it will happen here in the U.S., too. People don’t always understand the context of this bacteria,” Dr. Dele Davies, professor and chair of Pediatrics and Human Development at MSU, said. There is also an initial assumption staph infections are composed of one rare and deadly bacterium, when there are really more than 30 different types of staphylococci that can infect humans. Most infections, however, are caused by staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus).[cheathem]
Under the microscope, S. aureus appear as large, round, golden-yellow colonies. “Staph bacteria can live in a healthy person’s nose, scalp, groin, armpits and skin, but once it enters a cut or wound, an infection can set in,” said Marcus Cheathem, principal information officer of the Ingham County Health Department. A lot of the time, we see the bacteria in the form of minor skin infections. The infection presents itself in the form of boils, pimples, impetigo (infections defined by the existence of itchy blisters) and abscesses. This type of S. aureus is passed on to another person through close skin-to-skin contact, cuts in the skin, contaminated surfaces and equipment and poor personal hygiene. [staph]
A typical example of how it’s spread is through close-contact sports such as wrestling or football. “If you participate in contact sports, be careful to shower and wash your hands on a regular basis,” said Cheathem. Fortunately in these cases, the simplicity of good hygiene and draining boils can improve the patient’s condition dramatically and efficiently within several days.
Anyone can develop a staph infection, although some people are at greater risk than others. The prevalence of staph infections differs demographically. Staph-related illness can range from mild and requiring no treatment to severe and potentially fatal. “Up until about 1980, all S. aureus were sensitive to methicillin. Now we have what’s called Methicillin-Resistant S. aureus (MRSA),” Dr. Daniel Havlichek, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and professor of Medicine at MSU, said. MRSA is a type of bacteria that is resistant to certain antibiotics. Some of the frequently used antibiotics include oxacillin, penicillin and amoxicillin, in addition to methicillin. “There are basically two big families of MRSA, ” Havlichek explained. “The new one is the one that seems to be causing all of the commotion.” Havlichek also said the old MRSA that has been around is mainly seen in long-term hospital or nursing home patients who have some type of deficiency in their immune systems. This includes people who are diabetics, cancer patients, intravenous drug users and those with numerous other medical problems. [staph2]
“The patients at the hospital are more at risk of getting the infection since their immune systems are often compromised, and many of them have open wounds or some sort of medication lines inserted, both of which provide easy access openings into the body for infection,” nursing senior Kelly Baker said. MRSA in these health-care settings usually causes serious and possible life threatening infections, such as bloodstream infections, surgical site infections or pneumonia.
[bakerbun1]Lately, more cases of MRSA infections are cropping up that are community-associated rather than health-care associated. This means normally healthy people are contracting the bacteria outside of hospital care facilities. Looking at the MSU community, this could imply if someone had MRSA, it could easily be spread among the rest of the student body.
These incidents are what Havlichek refers to as the “new” MRSA family. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates approximately 12 percent of MRSA infections are now community-associated. Moreover, this percentage may vary by community and patient population.
A current MSU student has seen this community-associated MRSA up close when one of his family members contracted it. Human biology senior Joe Egan’s younger brother saw a swelling underneath the nail on his left index finger. When the swelling didn’t go down and continued to pus, he decided to see his general practitioner. “The doctor diagnosed it as MRSA, gave him a strong dose of antibiotics and told him to wash it regularly,” Egan said. To make sure it hadn’t spread, Egan’s brother had to visit a surgeon. “I was definitely relieved to find out that the MRSA hadn’t spread because that meant a quicker recovery for him,” Egan said. Fortunately, within a week, the swelling had subsided and the MRSA never returned.
“Basically what we’re seeing is the normal activity of bacteria evolving and becoming more resistant over time to antibiotics. It will increase slowly over time so we need to be hastening to research this new genetic frontier,” Cheathem explained, speaking about the new family of MRSA. If you ask a doctor whether MRSA is a concern in the hospitals, the doctor is likely going to say “yes” because that’s his or her profession. Although staph infections are not going to take over the world in a matter of days, but it is a reason to take these infections seriously. “We don’t know who is susceptible to it or why, but it’s naïve to deny that it’s there,” said Havlichek.
Many MSU students are aware and relatively afraid of the infection. “It’s scary to think that MRSA could possibly become something that I need to worry about. I’ve always considered myself very healthy,” said no-preference freshman Katie Slotter. Slotter became aware of MRSA when her mother was diagnosed with the health-care associated strain in the hospital. Although Slotter understands this type of MRSA is hard to contract in her normal living environment, she has seen the seriousness of the infectious disease. It is a concern of hers that, although it is not a significant threat, the new kind of MRSA can affect the MSU community. [antibody]
Staph bacteria live on a variety of people and places, and when a certain set of conditions comes about, it can cause infection. “I am not really that worried about it. I guess it’s because I’ve been around it a lot working at the hospital and haven’t contracted it,” said Baker. On the other hand, there are a lot of sensible things that concerned people can do to make sure the chances of acquiring a “superbug” staph infection are significantly reduced.
“I can’t stress enough the importance of good hygiene. We need to be vigilant with hand-washing and good hygiene because that’s how it spreads,” said Davies. Some other obvious measures recommended by the CDC include paying attention to cuts and scrapes and not sharing health-care items such as towels and razors. If you see something that is unusual or bothering you, just go get it checked out. It’s that simple. [staph3]
“There are many bacteria in our body and like any bacteria, we can’t get rid of it completely,” said Davies. “But, we want to keep it tempered.” It is tempting to assume staph infections are raging through the university and the country due to heightened media coverage – staph isn’t sweeping through the university like a tidal wave. Through simple preventative measures and vigilant awareness, staph infections can be kept under control. It’s just like many other health complications – prevention is often as simple as washing your hands.

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