When a Bancroft Elementary School student was infected with a drug-resistant staph infection recently, the school was scrubbed down and parents were informed of the problem through letters home.

As the town moves into winter sickness season, Andover Director of Public Health Thomas Carbone assures residents that, although a staff infection can be contagious, it's a common occurrence; that people do not need to be "overly anxious about."

In fact, when he was in college, Carbone grew a staph infection on his hand on purpose, as part of a class lesson, he said. The course was on food safety, and each class member grew a different type of germ on their hand "to see what would grow," said Carbone.

"It was to show the importance of washing your hands properly and to use gloves when preparing food," he said. "In some people, it's there all the time. It's not a problem if you're protecting yourself ... just wash your hands before you have dinner."

The Bancroft student, infected with MRSA (or methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus), recovered quickly and returned to school after a day or two, said Bancroft Principal Scott Morrison. Bancroft was never closed over the incident, which occurred just before Thanksgiving.

That week, the janitorial staff at Bancroft "stepped up" the cleaning they normally do, said Morrison, and disinfected keyboards, pencil sharpeners and other common areas. Because of Bancroft's open design, there are no doors, so no doorknobs to potentially spread germs, he noted.

"Staph infections have been around forever. It's a common bacteria found on the skin of healthy people," said Morrison. "With MRSA, you just have to move to a different antibiotic."

Carbone said he was notified of the incident of MRSA after the fact, once the student had recovered.

"The whole idea is that staph infections are very common, and not reportable to health department because they are so common. It's not a public health issue that people are making it to be," said Carbone. "It is a public health concern, but not something to get overly anxious about."

One-third of the population is able to shed a staphylococcus infection naturally, without taking medicine, said Carbone.

The best precautions against a staph infection, or staphylococcus aureus, are the normal things most people do during the winter to keep from getting sick, said Carbone: putting antibiotic ointment and a bandage on a cut, washing one's hands, keeping work surfaces clean and periodically disinfecting keyboards, phones and other often-touched items.

Staph bacteria, including the methicillin-resistant type, can result in skin infections that may look like a pimple or boil and can be red, swollen, painful or have puss. If more serious, the infection may cause pneumonia and bloodstream infections, and in a small number of patients, death.

MRSA has been in the media limelight lately, which has caused people to worry unnecessarily, said Carbone. There are other medicines that will treat a staph infection besides methicillin, he said.

"The MRSA is what people worry about. All that means is that the antibiotic of choice, methicillin, cannot be used. They get treated every day in the Commonwealth," said Carbone. "People associate MRSA with the so-called flesh eating bacteria (but that's not true). All it means is that they have to treat it with something else (besides methicillin)."

Andover Superintendent Claudia Bach sent her letter home to parents on Nov. 16, letting parents know about the case of MRSA at Bancroft and the precautions taken | including a full disinfection of the building.

"I have asked all our principals to continue to redouble efforts to clean high risk areas in all our schools, and to remind staff to reiterate to our students instructions about hand washing and general hygiene," Bach wrote in the letter.


Learn more about MRSA:

r www.cdc.gov/features/MRSAinschools

r www.mass.gov/dph/cdc/antibiotic/mrsa_school_health.htm

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