Thousands Infected With 'Superbug' Have No Idea

Handwashing is key to keeping kids safe from killer infection, say doctors.

ByABC News
October 26, 2007, 5:57 PM

Oct. 26, 2007 — -- The death of a 12-year-old boy in New York City this week led doctors and public health officials to again sound the alarm about a supervirulent and highly resistant strain of staph infection that is killing children across the country and is responsible for more deaths nationwide than AIDS.

Omar Rivera, a seventh-grader from Brooklyn, became the latest casualty of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, a strain of drug-resistant bacteria traditionally found in hospitals and nursing homes but increasingly being found in schools and day care centers.

"In general, 3 percent of the population is carrying MRSA without even knowing it," said Betsy McCaughy, chairman of the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 18,000 people died from the "superbug" in 2005, and health professionals estimate 94,000 people become infected every year.

"MRSA is transmitted through the skin and can live on inanimate objects for 90 days," McCaughy said. "In schools it is most often found in gym facilities and on keyboards."

McCaughy said school administrators, teachers and parents each have a role to play in reducing the number of MRSA infections in children.

Parents, she said, should send their children to school with a container of alcohol-based hand sanitizer and warn students of sharing gym shorts, bars of soap, towels and other personal items.

Schools, she said, should test surfaces like gym equipment and provide hand sanitizer in classrooms so students wouldn't have to regularly ask permission to go to the bathroom to wash their hands.

Though most MRSA child infections have been been linked to school locker rooms, Dr. Jaime Fergie, an infectious disease specialist at the Driscoll Children's Hospital in Corpus Christi, Texas, said "the problem is not in schools only. Every child, from babies to adolescents, is at risk."

The symptoms of MRSA resemble the flu and are often accompanied by a boil-like pustule.