MRSA infections: Tougher tha Kevlar

     Methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus bacteria, commonly known as MRSA, is an epidemic plaguing all law enforcement agencies and correctional facilities in the United States. The bacteria causes a drug resistant infection that is as effective as a bullet in wreaking pain, suffering and even death, killing more than 100,000 people in U.S. hospitals alone every year.

     Until the late 1990s, MRSA was found exclusively in hospitals. But beginning in 1998, a community-associated form of the deadly bacteria, CA-MRSA, emerged globally, with more potent toxins than hospital-acquired MRSA. It is now found in all law enforcement environments: jails, correctional facilities, police and sheriff cruisers, inmate transport vehicles, as well as in the areas officers must patrol.

     Police Officer Christopher Seggi learned the hard way just how easy it is to acquire this virulent bacteria strain when he responded to a "routine" suspect transport in December 2006. When placing the suspect, taken into custody by the Orlando (Florida) Police Department's drug team, into his police cruiser, Seggi noticed what appeared to be spider bites on the man's leg. However, no open sores or bleeding were present. Seggi transported the suspect to the Orange County Correctional Facility and transferred custody without incident - but an infectious time bomb was left behind in his vehicle.

     Out of an abundance of caution, Seggi returned to his cruiser and attempted to clean its backseat with a traditional "spray and wipe" cleaning method. There were no indications of infectious contaminants anywhere in the vehicle. The officer leaned on the backseat where the suspect had been restrained and was wearing his standard department-issued uniform, including long pants.

     Several days after the incident, the Orlando officer noticed what appeared to be a spider bite on his right knee. Thinking it was merely an insect bite, he disregarded it and went about his daily life. He went home to his wife, commuted in his personal vehicle, had dinner with family and friends, and even traveled on an airplane.

     A little more than a week later, Seggi noticed he suffered the same insect-type bites on his knee and elbow that he'd seen on the suspect's leg. While sitting in roll call, a safety bulletin on MRSA was circulated among officers. As Seggi read the bulletin, he began to go through the symptom checklist in his mind. He had what appeared to be insect bites and a rash on his skin, and the skin was warm and painful to the touch. After a visit with the doctor and several tests later, Seggi learned he had contracted an infection from MRSA.

What is MRSA?
     Staph bacteria, including MRSA, can cause skin infections that may look like a pimple or boil and can be red, swollen, painful, or have pus or other drainage. More serious infections may cause pneumonia, bloodstream infections, or surgical wound infections.

     MRSA is a severe and sometimes deadly staph infection that is resistant to most beta-lactam antibiotics, which include methicillin and other more common antibiotics such as oxacillin, penicillin and amoxicillin. It is contagious through casual contact between individuals, shared surfaces and even personal items such as towels and linens. The infection is very painful, can be deadly, and treatment consists of draining and debriding the wound followed by multiple potent doses of antibiotics that cause most patients to feel ill during treatment.

     What's worse is MRSA is a growing epidemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report staph bacteria are one of the most common causes of skin infection in the United States and are a common cause of pneumonia, surgical wound infections and bloodstream infections. The majority of MRSA infections occur among patients in hospitals or other health care settings; however, the CDC reports it is becoming more common in the community setting. Data from a 2003 CDC study, suggests that 12 percent of clinical MRSA infections are community-associated, but this varies by geographic region and population.

     The CDC has investigated clusters of CA-MRSA skin infections among athletes, military recruits, children, Pacific Islanders, Alaskan natives, Native Americans, homosexuals, and prisoners. The organization found that factors associated with the spread of MRSA skin infections include: close skin-to-skin contact; openings in the skin, such as cuts or abrasions; contaminated items and surfaces; crowded living conditions; and poor hygiene.

     It is possible to have a staph or MRSA skin infection recur after treatment. According to the CDC, to prevent this from happening, it's important to follow a health care provider's directions during treatment, and adhere to the prevention steps listed in "How to prevent staph or MRSA skin infections" on Page 20 and "How to prevent the spread of MRSA" on Page 23, after the infection is gone.

Preventing MRSA
     The best start in any prevention effort is through officer education. Many law enforcement agencies recently initiated infection control and reporting systems. Law enforcers are also beginning to focus critical attention on the dangers of surface-borne contaminants, such as MRSA and Hepatitis C, and airborne contaminants, such as Tuberculosis (TB). Visiting Web sites, such as www.cdc.gov, and reading articles is another great way to keep informed of the dangers of infectious diseases.

     Proper personal hygiene protocols also should be established, including effective hand washing, showering before leaving work, and having uniforms cleaned at work instead of at home. And all officers should be educated in these protocols and mandated to follow them.

     But that is not enough.

     More attention must be placed on proper room and vehicle sterilization and disinfecting techniques. Methods that include the use of harsh chemicals, such as bleaches and traditional "spray and wipe" disinfectants, are largely ineffective and must be re-evaluated. Revolutionary sterilizing and disinfecting technologies, such as "Dri-Mist" micro-particle applications, are now available and are effective at eliminating harmful environmental contaminants, such as MRSA, VRE (vancomycin-resistant enterococci), Hepatitis and Avian Flu. Law enforcement must implement these more effective disinfectant applications immediately to protect both officers and the public.

     Following Seggi's treatment, he learned how fortunate he was that he hadn't contaminated his family and friends with MRSA. "The last thing I want to do is bring home the dangers of my job to my family," he comments. "I signed up for the risks of being a police officer, but my family and friends didn't, and they shouldn't be subjected to the same dangers I face every day."

     Law enforcement officers, corrections officers, firefighters and EMT/paramedics are on the front lines of infectious, and sometimes deadly bacteria and viruses every time they go to work. The fight against contagious diseases must begin NOW! The potential for cross-contamination into officers' personal lives is too great. It isn't enough to simply safeguard the lives of your officers. When it comes to deadly and infectious diseases such as MRSA, everyone is at risk.

How to prevent staph or MRSA skin infections
     Practice good hygiene:

  1. Keep your hands clean by washing thoroughly with soap and water or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  2. Keep cuts and scrapes clean and covered with a bandage until healed.
  3. Avoid contact with other people's wounds or bandages.
  4. Avoid sharing personal items such as towels or razors.

Prevent the spread of MRSA
     The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that MRSA infected individuals can prevent spreading MRSA to others by following these steps:

  • Cover the wound. Keep wounds that are draining or have pus covered with clean, dry bandages. Follow a health care provider's instructions on proper wound care. Pus from infected wounds can contain staph and MRSA, so keeping the infection covered will help prevent the spread to others. Bandages or tape can be discarded with the regular trash.
  • Regular hand washing. Infected individuals, their family, and others in close contact with them should wash their hands frequently with soap and warm water or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, especially after changing the bandage or touching the infected wound.
  • Avoid sharing personal items, such as towels, washcloths, razors, clothing or uniforms that may have had contact with the infected wound or bandage. Wash sheets, towels and clothes that become soiled with water and laundry detergent. Drying clothes in a hot dryer, rather than air-drying, also helps kill bacteria in clothes.
  • Share infection history with doctors. Infected individuals should tell any health care providers who treat them that they have or have had a staph or MRSA skin infection.

Jason Schneider, is the vice president of Zimek Technologies' Public Safety Division. He may be reached at jschneider@zimek.com.

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