Staph infections are become a growing concern in Massachusetts schools. All over, teachers are asking children to wash their hands for as long as it takes to sing the alphabet song, many schools have their walls scrubbed clean with bleaching powder, and student athletes have been reminded to shower after practice and games.
All these precautionary efforts on public health are being taken by school officials and education officials in light of the increased awareness on staph infections.
"We really want to stress prevention," says Donna Rheaume, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Health.
There are several types of staph infections. Yet, the one causing concern among health professions is methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA. This bacterium is a superbug, as it is resistant to certain types of antibiotics. Several recent cases of MRSA have been confirmed in Massachusetts including schools in Winchester and Wrentham.
Staph bacteria, including MRSA, can cause skin infections that resemble a pimple or boil. It can turn and red, swollen and be painful. It could contain pus or other fluids. More serious infections can result in pneumonia, bloodstream infections, or surgical wound infections.
State public health and education officials have sent out advisories and recommendations to school districts. These have been passed out to nurses, teachers, and parents.
According to Al DeMaria, communicable disease control director for the DPH, MRSA infections are common, particularly in hospitals and nursing homes. They are typically minor, except for "quite rare" serious cases among healthy children. The infection is spread by direct skin-to-skin contact, he informs.
Staph bacteria are also spread by contact with items that have been touched by people with staph, like towels shared after bathing and drying off, or shared athletic equipment in the gym or on the field.
The students most at risk can be said to be athletes. This is because many come in contact through the course of a game or practice.
According to DeMaria, athletes are also prone to getting superficial cuts during the course of play.
School superintendents inform they are taking the advisories seriously. In addition, many are focusing on prevention efforts with the athletes. Superintendents give that they have met with principals, nurses, and teachers to help take the message across to students and parents about the importance of prevention.
Belmont Superintendent Peter Holland reports that the district's athletic director has met with all coaches and shared information with athletes. Students have been reminded not to share towels, razors, or soap and to shower after practice and games.
"It's a question of being alert. Most of these things can be dealt with using normal hygiene lessons", says Holland.
One of these, Holland says is an extra effort being made to stock bathrooms with liquid soap, so that it is always accessible to students.
Other school systems have been undertaking additional scrubbings as a precaution.
Coming to Harvard, Superintendent Thomas Jefferson says the elementary school has recently had a deep cleaning.
"It's a realistic and symbolic precaution," he says. "Just to be on the safe side, we're doing some extra disinfecting."
According to Jefferson, it is particularly important to make sure the elementary school is clean. This is because the younger students share playground equipment and are less vigilant about washing their hands. They also tend to put their hands in their mouth more than the older students, says Jefferson.