Gurney's Inn
October 31, 2007

Super Bug At Southampton School?

Has the Southampton School District been seized by the superbug?

The question is one that has some parents concerned, after reports that two students from Southampton High School were treated last week for MRSA, a "superbug" that is resistant to many antibiotics.

MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, is a type of staph infection resistant to commonly prescribed antibiotics. MRSA often looks like an angry red pimple or boil, sometimes filled with pus.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported this month that in 2005, there were more deaths from MRSA than AIDS -- nearly 19,000 people. Nearly almost all of the deaths occurred among people with weakened immune systems who had been in hospitals or other health care settings, including nursing homes and dialysis centers.

But, since the deaths of a 17-year-old Virginia high school student and a Brooklyn middle schooler, parents around the country have been demanding answers and wondering why MRSA is suddenly striking otherwise healthy young people.

After two Southampton students were treated last week for MRSA, Dr. J. Richard Boyes, superintendent of Southampton schools, sent out a missive to ease parents' concerns. Boyes said after cases have been reported statewide, the goal was to wanted to quell rumors and address the facts.

"Over this past weekend, I learned that a very small number of Southampton High School students have been diagnosed as having this infection," he wrote on October 23. "The cases reported to date, both statewide and in Southampton, have been treated successfully with antibiotics and other procedures. We are not dealing with a dangerous 'superbug.'"

Michael Conte of Symtax, public relations firm for the district, said there have been two confirmed cased of Southampton High School students; both were athletes.

Conte said it is not easy to determine how MRSA cases are contracted in a community setting such as a school or locker room unlike in a hospital, where MRSA more typically is found. In the controlled environment of a hospital, he said, it is easier to determine how a case is transmitted. MRSA is not a new affliction; it has been present in the United States for over 50 years, most commonly in hospitals and nursing homes.

But in a community setting such as schools and sports venues where people gather, he said, "It's very, very difficult."

With an eye toward awareness, Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy and the Suffolk County Department of Health Services issued a health advisory to all residents and school districts about MRSA and how they can prevent and reduce the risk of infections among students in schools.

"We want to reassure the public that staph is common in the environment and it is not a threat to healthy people," said Levy.

Suffolk County Health Commissioner Humayun Chaudhry said that one in every four individuals carries staph on their skin but never develops a serious infection.

Since recent cases have been reported on Long Island, both the Suffolk County Department of Health Services and Senator Charles Schumer have called out for county and national tracking system so MRSA cases can be tracked and treated.

A meeting with Levy, the commissioner of health, and school superintendents will be held today to discuss preventative measures.

Dr. David Graham, Suffolk County Deputy Health Commissioner, stresses that the key message is MRSA is preventable and treatable. "We don't want people to panic."

Even when MRSA does occur, Graham said "99.9 percent of the time, it's treatable."

He added that although the Southampton School district has reported cases of MRSA, "We have not been able to confirm those cases they are not confirmed cases."

And other speculation regarding teachers in Southold who may have MRSA are similarly unconfirmed, he said.

Towns with confirmed cases include Huntington, Islip, Babylon, and Brookhaven. Cases have also been reported in Longwood and Freeport. Conte said the cases reported so far have been high schools students, with one elementary school student in Glen Cove.

Experts agree that there are a number of common tips that can help to prevent infection, such as keeping hands clean by washing thoroughly with soap and water or using alcohol-based hand sanitizer; keeping cuts and scrapes clean and covering with bandages until healed; avoiding contact with other people's wounds and bandages; and avoiding the sharing of personal items such as razors or towels.

Conte assured the Southampton students were treated by their family physicians and returned to school. 'It wasn't the so-called superbug," he said. "We haven't had a case on Long Island of the so-called superbug. In Southampton, both cases were successfully treated with antibiotics."

Although Southampton is the only school on the East End to have reported cases of MRSA, other districts are putting instructions on prevention on their website. In Southampton, Conte said parents were quick to praise the district for its communication efforts. And, he added, in Southampton, steps such as disinfecting locker rooms and cleaning out lockers were taken.

Common sense is key, he said. "Locker rooms are breeding grounds for any type of bacteria." Therefore, use of antibacterial products, taking showers, and washing hands after a game are critical pointers for student athletes. MRSA is spread, he said, by people in close proximity who've had "skin to skin contact."

Boyes said the district has been aggressive in dealing with the health concern both before and after learning about local cases of the staph infections, with school officials meeting to discuss concerns, educational preventative efforts, and cleaning protocols. "We scheduled a special disinfecting cleaning of our high school physical education areas last weekend before learning of a single student staph infection," he said.

After consulting with the New York State Department of Health and other agencies, Boyes said the district is working to provide information regarding prevention, detection, and reporting; increasing the use of disinfectants in higher risk areas such as bathrooms and physical education spaces; purchasing hand sanitizer dispensers for student use throughout buildings; instructing every child in personal hygiene and universal precautions; providing instruction to student athletes regarding prevention and reporting; and ensuring school staff are vigilant in looking for skin conditions.

As for closing schools because of MRSA, the CDC says in most case, it is not necessary. The CDC also maintains that students with MRSA should not be excluded from attending school; exclusion from school and sport activity should be reserved for those with wound drainage that cannot be covered or contained with a bandage and those who cannot maintain good personal hygiene.

"There is no reason to be alarmed, just careful," said Boyes. "There is certainly no epidemic. "

Southampton Village Mayor Mark Epley, a parent whose has children in the Southampton School District, said he is not overly concerned. "We're not worried. The outbreak at school is really unusual." Communication between parents, children, and educators is key, he said. "The most fundamental thing you can do to prevent the spread of disease is wash your hands thoroughly."

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