MRSA Infection Spreading Among Young Athletes

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NORFOLK, Va. -- Experts are seeing an increase in the staph infection MRSA among children who participate in sports, but in the last several years, doctors have also discovered simple strategies to keep children out of the hospital.

It's a story no parent would expect to ever have to tell. As soccer moms keep a close eye on the field action, who would ever worry about a different hazard-- a bacterium called methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus; simply known as MRSA. The problem is there's nothing simple about it.

"MRSA is actually a form of staph that is resistant to the typical antibiotics that we've used to kill staph infections for years," Dr. Randall Fisher, an infectious disease specialist with Children's Hospital of the Kings Daughters in Norfolk, Va., told CBN News.

In fact, the "R" for resistant is the issue. Germs and bacteria are built to survive and these organisms, known as staph, have survived and spread.

"What has changed is that there's a lot more MRSA now circulating in the community than there ever has been in the past," Dr. Fischer said.

One Little Girl's Battle

One little victim of MRSA, named Brooke, remembers her time in the hospital and lots of "different people coming in and treating me."

Fisher was one of the physicians working on her case. The infection was internal - in her hip joint - and that required surgery to drain it.

Brooke's first and only symptom was pain. She spent a week-and-a-half in the hospital and six weeks on intravenous antibiotics.

"And when we went home - every Saturday or Sunday - they would come and have to remove all of this tape and tubes and stuff," Brooke recalled.

Brooke isn't alone. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, MRSA caused more than 94,000 life-threatening infections and nearly 19,000 deaths in the U.S. in 2005. Most cases are external, beginning with a sore on the skin or a rash.

"People will often describe them as starting out like a pimple or a spider bite, area of redness over time it will enlarge become red and very tender," Fisher explained.

MRSA's victims can be of all ages, such as one-year-old Simon Sparrow who died of the infection, or NBA All-Star, Grant Hill, who survived.

So why are athletes more at risk?

"Most of the time the athletic participation puts them in close contact with other people," Fisher said.  "Cases where they're sharing equipment for example. We've seen a lot of skin infections in wrestlers. Probably because they wrestle on the mats and everyone uses the same mats."

"So we think that it's transmitted that way, by contact," he continued.  "By direct or indirect contact, including razors and other types of things that they probably shouldn't share."

That sharing should not include towels. Also make sure to wash your hands, all equipment and above all, clean and treat any cuts, insect bites or scratches.

"A breach in the skin leads to MRSA. Staph sitting on intact skin is relatively harmless," Fisher added. "It can't infect you unless there's an opening to the deeper tissues."

Remember, bacteria are so small, they can enter through an opening that's invisible to the naked eye, which is why washing is so important.

Finally, make sure you treat any wounds you do see with an antibiotic ointment and cover them to avoid spreading the infection.

The key for Brooke was getting treatment right away. She has advice for other kids facing this medical condition.

"I would tell them not to be afraid and it will be over soon," she told CBN News.

"We have seen the majority of these patients get better," Fisher said.  "Although it's a scary situation when your child comes down with an infection, particularly when it's a resistant organism, we do have lots of antibiotics that we can still use, and we have the experience to take the best possible care of your child."

*Original broadcast August 18, 2009.

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