'Superbug' cases hit local schools

Scattered cases of MRSA, the drug-resistant infection that's often referred to as a superbug, have been cropping up among students in York and Chester county schools.

The condition has received a flurry of attention from schools and the media after the Oct. 15 death of a Virginia high school student who was hospitalized with an MRSA infection.

Rock Hill's Rawlinson Road Middle School notified its families by phone this week of an MRSA case at the school. Families at Mount Gallant, York Road, Ebinport and Oakdale elementary schools were recently notified of single cases at those schools, said district spokeswoman Elaine Baker.

Chester County schools have had three confirmed MRSA cases in recent weeks, said Superintendent Larry Heath. There was one case each at Chester and Lewisville high schools and one case at Lewisville Elementary School, he said.

Officials in the York and Fort Mill school districts said they have received unconfirmed reports of MRSA cases.

Schools aren't required to notify all their parents about MRSA cases among students, but Baker said Rock Hill officials thought it best to do so to prevent rumors from spreading.

"I just felt it's better to get the information out instead of waiting for someone to ask you why you haven't said anything," Baker said Friday. "Our policy has been to tell parents as quickly as we know, whatever they need to know."

MRSA -- methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus -- is a staph infection that is resistant to the most common drugs, beta-lactam antibiotics such as penicillin and methicillin. However, MRSA can be treated with certain antibiotics. Staph bacteria is a common cause of skin infections -- but not all staph is MRSA.

MRSA is not on the list of conditions required by law to be reported to state health officials, so schools would not know if a student is infected unless the family informs the school.

York schools have had "two or three" recent suspected but unconfirmed cases of MRSA among students, said Charley Wood, director of special services.

York parents received a letter about MRSA from the district about a week ago to tell them "that we knew what to look for and we were handling it in the right way," Wood said.

Heath said the Chester County students are being treated, and the Chester High student has returned to school. A letter was sent home with students Friday, he said, to inform parents that precautions are being taken. Schools received additional cleaning and staff members were advised what to look for, Heath said.

Fort Mill Superintendent Keith Callicutt said there have been rumors of two MRSA cases in Fort Mill, but that schools have not received any confirmation.

"We want our parents to be assured that we are taking every precaution," Callicutt said. He said the sanitation staff has been alerted to be thorough and that teachers and staff have been asked to encourage hand-washing.

Clover schools head nurse Gale Stewart said the district hasn't had the need to notify parents of any MRSA cases.

School district officials in both counties said they have worked closely with the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control to ensure proper precautions.

However, Dr. Gil Potter, medical director for DHEC's region three, which includes York, Chester and Lancaster counties, said the agency would not be involved in individual cases unless there was a cluster of closely related cases.

MRSA usually shows up as a skin infection -- a raised boil or a red, swollen and inflamed area.

"Ninety-five to 99 percent of infections with MRSA are skin infections, and they are usually minor," Potter said. But if not treated, he said, it can get into the blood and become life-threatening.

Potter said that even the worst MRSA cases can usually be treated with antibiotics. Deaths are rare, he said. "I think people are responding more to the publicity and the hysteria from it than the science," he said.

He said good cleaning is an appropriate precaution, but that extensive disinfection practices are not necessary because the bacteria is carried by people.

Piedmont Medical Center in Rock Hill began routinely testing its patients for MRSA about a year ago by swabbing their noses to find out if they carry the bacteria.

Contact precautions such as gowns and gloves are used by health care workers until the test results come back, in about 48 hours. If the test is negative for MRSA, the precautions are stopped.

Dr. Craig Charles, an infectious disease specialist at PMC, said around 15 percent of admissions overall test positive for carrying MRSA, which does not mean they have an infection.

If patients test positive, health care workers continue the contact precautions to avoid spreading MRSA to others. "In the year we've been doing it, we're seeing impressive reductions in MRSA infections in the hospital," he said.

In Sunday's Lifestyles section, The Herald takes a closer look at staph infections, including the MRSA "superbug." Find out what is staph, who is most at risk of getting it, how it is treated and what parents can tell their children to reduce their chances of infection.