Westford students sickened by staph
Drug-resistant strain blamed; school scrubbed
Germs capable of evading standard antibiotics have sickened a cluster of Westford high school students, the latest example of drug-resistant bacteria spreading in the community.
Four students, all athletes at Westford Academy, were diagnosed with the antibiotic-resistant bacteria known as MRSA.
The news, e-mailed to parents on Tuesday, was followed yesterday by a wide-scale scrub down of the school, underscoring the increasingly pervasive nature of the bacteria.
Known formally as Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, MRSA commonly rides on the skin or in the nose of healthy people and can cause an infection when bacteria get into a cut, scrape, or other break in the skin.
The infection - painful, swollen pimples, boils, and rashes - spreads by direct skin-to-skin contact, such as shaking hands or wrestling, or by contact with items touched by people with staph, including towels or shared athletic equipment.
On rare occasions, it enters the bloodstream and sparks a more serious illness.
Once found mostly in hospitals, MRSA has taken up residence in a growing number of communities.
“It is no longer exclusive to very debilitated patients who are chronically hospitalized,’’ said Dr. Elisa Choi, an infectious disease specialist at Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates.
Choi and other health care providers are increasingly finding the infection in young, otherwise healthy people living in the community.
At the same time, Choi said, the pipeline of new antibiotics that can thwart the infection has slowed considerably.
“With the increasing prevalence of antibiotic resistant bacteria, like MRSA, we are going to run out of tools to treat infections,’’ she said.
Doctors often face a dilemma with such infections, Choi said, because patients may not have a boil or other wound that can be tested for MRSA, forcing doctors to make their best guess and choose one of the few antibiotics that remain effective.
Overuse or misuse of antibiotics can exacerbate the problem, she said, causing more disease-resistant strains of bacteria.
Westford’s superintendent of schools, Everett V. Olsen Jr., said the district is taking the cluster of MRSA cases seriously and outlined to parents in the e-mail this week the actions taken to combat its spread.
The school “is continuing to disinfect locker rooms, gym mats, and equipment,’’ the e-mail stated.
“All coaches are reviewing, with their athletes, ways to recognize the signs and symptoms, as well as methods to prevent staph infections,’’ the letter said.
The letter included fact sheets about MRSA and information about how to treat and control further infections.
Olsen said in an interview yesterday that a local pediatrician informed the public school Tuesday about four students, including boys and girls, who were diagnosed with MRSA. He said that none of them were hospitalized and all four are believed to be recovering.
Olsen said school leaders immediately notified health officials and drafted a letter to parents. They also brought in extra custodians to scour the school.
Westford Academy, with about 1,700 students in grades 9 though 12, has not had other reported cases of MRSA, Olsen said.
“Ironically, we have a reputation as having some of the cleanest schools in our entire area,’’ Olsen said.
“This may not have originated in our school system,’’ he said. “It may have been spread by two athletes shaking hands. It could have originated anywhere, including someone visiting a private gym.’’
MRSA has become so prevalent in the community that sometimes doctors are battling cases that attack entire families.
“In some households, we don’t know why this has selected a particular household and become kind of a resident in that household, as opposed to others where it stops with one episode,’’ said Dr. A.W. Karchmer, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and former chief of infectious diseases at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
Karchmer said that while MRSA can seem scary because it can outwit some antibiotics, the truth is, it acts like many other strains of staph.
“This shouldn’t terrorize people and have them flocking to get their nose cultured,’’ Karchmer said. “This is not much worse than the others out there, but there are fewer drugs to treat it.’’