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In Philadelphia, a football player from Martin Luther King High School has unexpectedly died after contracting a contagious staph infection called methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA (pronounced “Mursuh”).

17-year-old Saalen Jones, a high school senior, died Tuesday at Albert Einstein Medical Center, where his father took him after finding him semi-conscious in bed. Prior to that, the young man had complained only of debilitating neck pain, showing no overt signs of infection.

Administrators at Jones’ school responded immediately to news of his death, taking steps to thoroughly clean school grounds in accordance with Department of Public Health requirements, and making sure that everyone who came into close contact with Jones gets screened for MRSA by a doctor. Two of the football player’s teammates are showing skin lesions that are potentially MRSA-related.

There are several different strains of MRSA, many of them remarkably resistant to conventional antibiotics. Researchers believe that this resistance is a result of the widespread use of prescribed antibiotics, combined with patients neglecting to finish the course of their medications. Over the course of an antibiotic treatment, the bacteria least resistant to a drug will die first, leaving the stronger ones to survive until the end of the treatment, at which time they too will die. When people don’t finish their treatments for whatever reason (i.e. they hate taking pills; they feel better already, etc.) the stronger bacteria is not killed off, but reproduces instead, creating a more antibiotic-resistant strain which over time, will spread and become still more resistant to antibiotics as it multiplies. There is some evidence that our overuse of antibacterial soaps and other antibacterial skin products also contributes to the problem.

MRSA infections typically first appear as small red bumps that resemble pimples, spider bites, or boils that may be accompanied by fever or rash. Within a few days the bumps become large and painful. Usually MRSA is localized, but sometimes it can spread and turn into a bloodstream infection or pneumonia.

MRSA infections were once seen almost exclusively in hospital patients, but are becoming more common in US schools and gyms. MRSA is spread most often by direct, skin-to-skin contact; it is not an airborne bacteria.

The following steps can be taken to reliably prevent the spread of MRSA in our schools and communities:

  • Keep your hands clean by washing with soap and water (not antibacterial soap) or using an alcohol-based sanitizer. While many antibacterial soaps and cleaners have been shown to be ineffective against MRSA, alcohol consistently kills it.
  • Clean dirty indoor surfaces regularly with alcohol-based cleaners
  • Keep cuts and scrapes clean and bandaged until healed.
  • Avoid contact with other people’s wounds or bandages.
  • Avoid sharing personal and skin care items such as towels, cosmetics, deodorant and razors.
  • Shower with soap (not antibacterial soap) after every sports practice or game.
  • Take the full course of any antibiotic treatment you are prescribed.
  • Seek medical attention immediately if you suspect you have been exposed to MRSA. A simple skin culture will identify the presence of the bacteria.

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