Las Vegas student diagnosed with staph

A Clark County School District student has been diagnosed with a drug resistant staph infection, prompting the district to send letters to parents today informing them of how to prevent the infection while also calming fears about its seriousness, a medical official with the district said Tuesday.

School system officials learned Monday that a student at Stewart School has been diagnosed with the skin infection known as MRSA, said Diana Taylor, director of health services for the district. Taylor did not know the condition or age of the student. Stewart, near Flamingo Road and Eastern Avenue, serves about 200 special education students.

Taylor did not know how, or where, the student became infected. As a preventive measure, custodians on Monday and Tuesday used disinfectants to clean areas of the school where the student had been. Taylor said the school wasn’t shut down and no additional students or staff at the school were infected.

Parents of nearly 309,000 district students will receive letters this afternoon informing them about Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, which has been widely reported in recent months as being responsible for the deaths of a few students throughout the nation. It is sometimes referred to as a "superbug" because it is immune to common antibiotics and is being diagnosed in individuals who are considered healthy.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, MRSA has been known to occur most frequently among patients who undergo invasive medical procedures or who have weakened immune systems and are being treated in a hospital.

MRSA caused more than 94,000 life-threatening infections and nearly 19,000 deaths in the United States in 2005, most of them connected with health care settings, according to the Oct. 17 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Taylor doesn’t want Clark County parents to be fearful because one student was diagnosed with the strain. She believes it’s the first time, however, that the district has alerted parents by letter about a case.

"We’re not talking about an epidemic," Taylor said. "It’s not something that is running rampant in the district."

MRSA is a type of bacteria that causes skin infections and is more resistant to certain antibiotics than other strains of staph. It is usually spread by direct physical contact with someone who carries the bacteria, regardless of whether they show signs of infection. However, it can also be contracted by contact with objects handled by an infected person, such as gym equipment and towels, said Martha Framsted, a spokeswoman with the Nevada State Health Division. This is why athletes are susceptible to the strain.

Even though everyone is susceptible to MRSA, it is more likely to spread in group settings — such as on sports teams, in correctional facilities and at schools — where people have repeated contact with each other. The bacteria that causes MRSA can also enter the blood and infect other organs.

Brian Labus, an epidemiologist for the Southern Nevada Health District, said his office reviewed the content of the letter being sent to parents to make sure it’s accurate.

According to the district’s office of epidemiology, MRSA is common throughout Southern Nevada. In 2005 and 2006, about 17,000 MRSA cases were reported to the agency. About 3,600 of those cases involved youth under age 18.

The data is based on lab samples sent to the health district from Quest Diagnostics and Mountain View, Sunrise, Southern Hills and St. Rose Dominican hospitals and University Medical Center.

Even though that number doesn’t represent all of the Southern Nevada’s MRSA cases — health care providers aren’t required to report the infection to public health agencies — Labus said the number does provide a gauge of how often the infection occurs.

Labus said he didn’t know how many Southern Nevadans died as a result of complications from MRSA because the health district only receives lab specimens. But he said the infection is rarely deadly.

"It is fairly common here,” he said. "We don’t investigate the cases. We are just tracking them. If there’s a cluster or some sort of large group of cases, then absolutely we want to hear about it.”

In general, Labus said he believes people across the country are getting "overexcited” about one or two cases of MRSA.

"Kids are bringing it in the school and they are not having any problems. But when someone does get the skin irritation, that’s when it becomes a problem because it spreads,” he said. "The goal is to prevent it from spreading to other kids. The best way to do that is to teach proper hygiene.”

Although local medical officials say MRSA fears are overstated, there have been recent documented cases in which students have died and schools have been shut down after infections were diagnosed.

In mid October, a 17-year-old high school senior in Virginia died from the strain. The school system in Virginia shut down 21 schools to keep the illness from spreading. Later that month, New York City’s Health Department determined that a 12-year-old boy likely died from a staph infection.

Taylor said the district is acting appropriately in handling the situation at Stewart. She said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not recommend shutting down schools after a student is diagnosed with staph.

Instead it recommends thoroughly cleaning areas where students have been because the staph bacteria can live on a nonporous surface for up to a week.

Superintendent Walt Rulffes said the letter being sent home to parents today is a sign the district is taking the threat of staph seriously.

"We want to be in a preventative mode and make parents aware of it."

Contact reporter Antonio Planas at aplanas@reviewjournal.com or (702) 799-2922. Contact reporter Annette Wells at awells@reviewjournal.com or (702) 383-0283.

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