Congress Gym Scare: Staph Infection Strikes Staffer

House cleans gym as reports of an infected staffer spread.

April 16, 2009 — -- Congressional staffers are privy to many Washington, D.C., insider perks -- but catching a bacterial infection at the House of Representatives gym is not one of them.

A House staffer reportedly has contracted the superbug known as Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA), and some who work in the Capitol have speculated that the origin of the infection was in a gym possibly used by some lawmakers, according to a report from the congressional newspaper, The Hill.

A statement The Hill received from the House chief administrative officer said that a House employee who is also a member of the House Staff Fitness Center (HSFC) reportedly contracted the common bacterium, which, in humans, is typically found on the skin and in the nose.

The identity of the infected staffer has not yet been released, nor have there been any further reports of infection.

Meanwhile, the HSFC reportedly has scrubbed down the gym with a germicidal cleaning product.

Dr. John Bartlett, past president of the Infectious Diseases Society of America and chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Md., said that the drug-resistant germ is becoming increasingly common, both in the United States and elsewhere.

"This is a huge national and international epidemic," Bartlett said. "It's all over."

"MRSA is everywhere -- 30 percent of us carry it around," agreed Dr. Gary Simon, director of the division of infectious diseases at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. "It's just the most recent strain of Staphylococcus Aureus. It's ubiquitous. You're going to get it."

For most, the MRSA bacteria may never pose a health problem. And even in those whose infections become noticeable, the most likely manifestation is as a painful boil.

"Most of the infections that we see are skin infections," Simon said. "These are usually treated with incision and drainage, antibiotics or both."

But rarely MRSA can go into overdrive. The resulting "flesh eating" incarnation destroys skin and muscle -- and it can lead to the loss of limbs and, in some cases, death.

"That's the extreme," Bartlett said.

A Growing Problem

For decades, MRSA largely was a concern at hospitals, where the infection spread from patient to patient. But a relatively new strain of MRSA, known as USA 300, has become an increasingly prevalent culprit, infecting healthy people in their communities.

In an October 2007 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control warned that MRSA was far more common than previously thought -- and that in 2005, the superbug was the culprit in more than 94,000 serious infections and was linked to more than 18,000 deaths.

Indeed, in November 2007, the results of this study were presented before the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform during a hearing titled "Drug-Resistant Infections in the Community: Consequences for Public Health." It was, perhaps, the first -- albeit less personal -- exposure that many in the House of Representatives had to MRSA.

Should Congressional Gym Rats Be Worried?

Bartlett said that while MRSA can be spread, those who fear they may have been exposed in this case need not worry about visiting their doctors unless they have found that they have a suspicious boil.

"I don't think that's necessary right now," he said. "It would not be appropriate for someone who uses this gym to be very worried about it. There is no reason to panic."

Simon remains unconvinced that the House gym was the source of this infection.

"Gyms don't infect people, people infect people," Simon said, adding that the staffer may have contracted the bug at any number of other places.

Regardless, the efforts to sanitize the gym likely are a smart step, as hygiene appears to be the best defense so far against MRSA.

Infectious disease experts agree that there are simple steps people can take to reduce their risk of contracting the superbug, such as washing their hands regularly, covering their wounds, and not sharing personal items, such as towels.