Super bugs: Coming to a department near you

It pays to be vigilant in the fight against antibiotic-resistant super bugs

     It began innocently enough. A few Fresno, California, firefighters reported a strange rash that appeared to be from spider bites. Fresno officials quickly hired an exterminator to eradicate the pests. However, as the number of afflicted firefighters grew and the condition of others worsened, administrators feared something more ominous was at work.

     Health department authorities inspected the city's three fire stations and quickly confirmed their suspicions. All but one of the facilities tested positive for MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus), and, the one station that didn't, already had two infected firefighters.

     "In one case, a firefighter spread it to his kids," says Jacky Parks, Fresno police officer and president of the Fresno Police Officers Association.

     The Fresno Fire Association enlisted Parks to help investigate whether public safety officials encountered the bacteria on the job. The resulting inquiry revealed several Fresno police officers also had been infected, and that yes, it was likely a job-related hazard.

     "Our officers were being exposed to this on the street due to an increasing transient population in the downtown area," Parks notes. "As the transient population grows, the issue becomes more common and more serious."

     Fresno's situation is hardly an anomaly. Antibiotic-resistant super bugs, such as MRSA, SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), Avian Flu and others, are plaguing departments across the country.

Risky business

     Police work is a high-risk occupation that often involves physical contact to subdue violent suspects or prisoners. But today's criminals bring more than a potential for violence to the streets, some also carry the silent and less obvious risk of unknown infection. Likewise, once officers restrain a subject, the danger is far from over. The infectious material these individuals transmit may continue to contaminate booking stations, holding cells or incarceration facilities for some time to come.

     The most common of the super bugs is MRSA. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates this bug alone infects around 94,000 people annually and causes approximately 19,000 deaths. While the CDC reports 86 percent of these infections are hospital acquired (HA-MRSA), 14 percent and growing are of the community-acquired (CA-MRSA) variety, which law enforcement officials come across daily.

     Public safety officials are particularly vulnerable to serious infection, agrees Charles Tiffin, Ph.D., who currently chairs the public safety program at Capella University and is the author of "On any given day, a law enforcement officer might encounter 100 different people in a variety of circumstances," he notes. "This puts them at great risk. MRSA is a bug that moves very easily from person to surface and from surface to person, and it's very robust."

     Couple this with the fact that the Journal of the American Medical Association reports drug-resistance forms of staph are becoming more commonplace. So much so, that James Dunford, an emergency room doctor at the University of California — San Diego Medical Center, jokes that if he doesn't see one to two cases of MRSA a day, he's somehow disappointed. But all kidding aside, he calls MRSA a very prevalent skin infection with the potential for dire, and possibly fatal, consequences.

     Common-variety staph infections, such as impetigo, cause sores on the body, which spread easily and do not heal well on their own. But these contagions rarely make affected individuals sick. However, Dunford says MRSA, which penetrates the skin more effectively and spreads more rapidly, bears the potential to make victims very, very ill. "Infected individuals get a lot sicker and sometimes even get bloodstream infections," he explains.

     But even with these concerns, Dunford describes media accounts designed to shock and scare the public about this threat as "gross exaggerations of what really occurs."

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