MRSA in kid athletes – simple but not easy

It’s been almost a week since this came out — told you there had been a lot of research released — but I wanted to make sure everyone saw it: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released results of an investigation into an outbreak of MRSA on a high school football team in Brooklyn, NY. (My home town, in case anyone cares. But it must have gotten gentrified, since the only organized activities I remember were somewhat less, umm, licit.)

Out of 59 players who attended a pre-season training camp where they practiced all day and bunked in the gym at night, 6 had MRSA skin abscesses (4 confirmed by culture, 2 suspected). The four confirmed cases all began as a pustule or blister that the kids ignored until the infections blew up; three of them subsequently needed the abscesses surgically incised and drained and also took antibiotics.

So, this will sound like not a big deal, right? Fifty-nine kids, 6 infections, attack rate of 11.8%, no one harmed in the long term. Well, in one sense, yes. On the other hand, without sounding like a Cassandra, there have been plenty of sports infections that did not turn out to be so minor: Kellen Winslow, Kenny George, Brandon Noble, Ricky Lannetti. (And if you’ll stay tuned til this book is published, there will be an entire chapter on MRSA and sports, both amateur and pro, and the story of a teen athlete who almost died of invasive MRSA following what looked like an innocuous minor infection.)

The difficult thing here is that the steps for preventing such infections — or, at least, vastly reducing their likelihood — are simple: Washing hands, showering after practice, not sharing towels or razors, keeping uniforms and gear clean, and keeping on top of what look like minor abrasions and bug bites. But, as this investigation demonstrates, it’s not so easy to get kids to take those things seriously:

The school had supplied antibacterial soap in pump dispensers in the showers; however, several players brought their own soap. Players supplied their own towels. Players reported that they usually left their towels on their cots or on the floor when not in use. The school offered a daily laundry service for uniforms and towels during the camp; however, most players did not have their towels washed and wore their uniforms two or three times between launderings. Players often remained in sweat-soaked clothes between the morning and afternoon practices. (MMWR Jan.30, 2009. 58(03);52-55)

As with hospital infections, where the simple act of handwashing remains one of the most difficult tasks to accomplish, the steps that could prevent MRSA among kid athletes are not complex. What is challenging is getting the kids to understand — over-against the hypermasculinity of sports, where it’s cool to be sweaty, dirty and banged-up — how important it is to perform those steps: routinely, thoughtfully, time after time after time.

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