Longworth explains the dirty truth about staph

by Jim Longworth

It’s human nature to blame others. We blame chemical companies for polluting our air, farmers for fouling our streams, oil companies for damaging our oceans, and SUV drivers for warming the globe. But if we want to point the finger of blame at someone for the rampant rise in staph infections, then we should look no further than our own dirty digits.

The recent death of a Staunton, Va. high school student is tragic for a number of reasons, including that his death was preventable. Somehow, somewhere, he came in contact with someone who directly or indirectly transmitted the drug-resistant super-bug, and, more likely than not, that culprit practiced poor hygiene.

It is a problem that we should have solved generations ago. For example, according to Discovery magazine, President James Garfield did not die from an assassin’s bullet. Instead, the president’s death has been attributed to infection caused by his medical team who had manure-stained hands. That was more than 120 years ago, so you’d think we would have learned how to properly wash our hands in that amount of time.

And yet Americans still die from E-coli, and now, from a super staph infection that is threatening to overtake AIDS as our nation’s number-one infectious disease.

Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus, commonly known as MRSA, is generally found on the skin or in the nose of about a third of our population. However, most of us are “colonized” by, but not infected with the disease, therefore, the presence of the germs on our body pose no health risk. And while hospitals have always been incubators for staph, increasingly, the potentially deadly super-bug is being transmitted by and among our young people, mainly while they are at school.

According to CNN, more than 90,000 people were infected with MRSA in 2005, resulting in more than 18,000 deaths. And, CBS reports that, in 2007, more than 1,800 new cases occur each week. As of Oct. 20, MRSA strains have popped up in eight states, including in North Carolina. Here in the Piedmont, for example, six football players recently became infected with the super-bug at East Forsyth High School.

We are told by medical professionals that MRSA is not spread through the air, and is only passed from skin to skin contact, or indirectly by sharing sports and gym equipment. Meanwhile, radio pundits and others have speculated about why the super-bug is on the attack, with theories ranging from the rise in illegal immigrants, to the over-prescription of antibiotics. But the truth is that many of us have become complacent about hygiene, and inconsiderate about our responsibility to our fellow man in that regard.

We still board planes, trains and buses even though we have the flu. We still send our children to school even though they might have been throwing up the night before. And there are still people (including in the food service industry) who refuse to wash their hands after visiting the toilet. Come on, America, good hygiene is not difficult or expensive. It is one of the few things everyone can practice regardless of our age or economic status.

Cleanliness is not brain surgery. When in doubt, thoroughly wash your hands with warm, soapy water before and after coming in contact with just about anything or anyone. Also, if you frequent a gym, take some antiseptic wipes with you and wipe down the equipment before and after you use it. If you work in a gym, put on rubber gloves before picking up discarded towels. And if you run a restaurant, it’s time to shut down your salad bars and dinner buffets once and for all. These communal feeding troughs haven’t been linked to MRSA, but they have been potential breeding grounds for infection, so this is as good a time as any to do the right thing in the name of public health.

Yes, it’s possible that MRSA could become the new American epidemic, but for now, we can all pitch in to help stem the tide of staph by simply using common sense, and by practicing good hygiene.

It’s a matter of washing up now, or being washed up later.

Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” which can be seen Friday mornings at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sunday nights at 10 p.m.