As reported by The Hartford Courant, October 18, 2007.

Deadly Germ, But It Can Be Beaten

Weston High School Student Has Infection, Isn't Seriously Ill

By William Hathaway

The antibiotic-resistant infection contracted by at least one Weston High School student is turning up more often in communities across Connecticut as it sparks fear across the nation.

Doctors across Connecticut have been reporting more cases of methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus infection, or MRSA, that have been contracted by people outside of hospitals. The number of serious blood-borne MRSA infections acquired in the community has increased from 38 in 2001, to 99 in 2006, state officials said.

But infectious disease experts also said that although the strain can kill the elderly and others with underlying health issues, in otherwise healthy people it is highly treatable and rarely life-threatening.

"You need to take these infections seriously, but they are rarely fatal in previously healthy young people," said Dr. James Hadler, chief epidemiologist at the Connecticut Department of Public Health.

Weston High School officials alerted the community to the problem this week, telling parents in a letter that one student had a confirmed case of MRSA and that they were waiting for results of tests on a second student.

Although the students were not seriously ill, the news came amid widening concern about the growth and severity of such infections.

The letter from the high school began circulating Tuesday - the same day a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association documented the high toll of MRSA in hospitals and the day the death of a Virginia high school student from the infection became national news.

Ashton Bonds, 17, a senior at Staunton River High School in Moneta, died Monday after being diagnosed with MRSA, his mother said. Protests after Bonds' death led officials in Virginia to shut down 21 schools.

As news of a similar infection in Weston spread Wednesday, officials took several steps - including a press conference - to address community concerns.

There are no protocols that require schools to publicly report MRSA infections, but Weston school district officials said they wanted to be proactive in order to ease fears.

"Yesterday's New York Times and CNN raised a lot of concern," Westport-Weston Community Health Director Monica Wheeler said. "The coincidence of that tragedy in Virginia just made everybody say, `What is going on?'"

Parents' reactions have been mixed, said interim Superintendent of Schools John Reed.

"There certainly are parents very comfortable with the steps taken, and there certainly are parents concerned," he said. "Some have asked if we're closing the school, and some have said we should close it."

But the state health department has not recommended such steps, Reed said. The district is following the state's advice. School officials have taken some actions, including wiping down surfaces and switching the type of cleaning agents used at the school. Students also are being encouraged to wash their hands and use antimicrobial hand gel that is already available in classrooms, Reed said.

The origin of the Weston High School student's infection has not been confirmed, but school and health officials believe the student was infected off school grounds. Weston school officials would not say whether the infected student had returned to class, citing privacy laws.

As documented in the JAMA article, the MRSA strain kills thousands of people in the nation's hospitals every year, usually elderly and those with severe underlying health issues. The strain is responsible for more than 94,000 serious infections and nearly 19,000 deaths a year nationwide, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But experts also say that when acquired by healthy people in the community - as opposed to those infected at hospitals - the bacterial infection only rarely causes serious illness and is treatable by other classes of antibiotics.

As many as 40 percent of people may carry staphylococcus aureus bacteria at any one time, according to some estimates.

When staph does appear, it is usually as a skin infection, characterized by reddish skin surrounding a boil topped by a black scab. The infection is often mistaken for a spider bite. Occasionally, the bacteria can enter the blood stream, where it can become life-threatening.

Ever since the introduction of penicillin in the 1940s, staphylococcus and other bacterial infections have developed resistance to several forms of antibiotics. As the JAMA study illustrates, these strains continue to raise havoc in hospitals.

But while rates of hospital-acquired MRSA infections have been relatively stable in recent years, community acquired infections have been rising steadily in the state and across the country.

Connecticut reported 952 cases of MRSA infections in 2005, but Hadler said the actual number could be much higher because many cases are not particularly serious.

In fact, MRSA infections are so common in the community now that most doctors who see such infections don't bother treating patients with the class of antibiotics that include methicillin, said Dr. Kevin Dieckhaus, chief of infectious diseases at the University of Connecticut Health Center.

The bacteria often spread through contact with pus-filled boils. In schools, athletes are often susceptible to infection.

"The infection is usually spread by person-to-person contact, and sometimes we see outbreaks in sporting teams, such as wrestlers or football players," said Dr. Robert Lyons, chief of infectious diseases at St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center in Hartford.

Simple hygiene, such as washing hands, can help stop the spread of the infection, said Monica Wheeler, community health director at Westport Weston Heath District.