A drug-resistant type of staph infection – known by the acronym MRSA – caused alarm across the country after a Virginia high school student died from the infection earlier this month. But University of Michigan health officials say the staph infection is nothing new and should not be cause for panic on campus.

A staph infection is a strain of bacteria that can live on the skin without harm but can become a problem if it enters the body through a cut or scrape.

Although they are contagious and staph infections can pass through any break in the skin, even a microscopic cut, covering up the infection is usually enough to prevent other people from getting a staph infection from casual contact, said Dr. Robert Ernst, medical director of University Health Service.

Ernst said that while the infection can be more difficult to treat than other strains of staph, it is rarely fatal.

“There is no question that the student in Virginia has raised awareness of the infection, but this is not a new bug,” Ernst said.

Dr. Robert Winfield, the health services director, said UHS has been aware of MRSA for years.

In 2005, UHS carried out its own study of staph infections at the University and found 24 cases of MRSA, all of which were treated successfully. Since then, UHS looks for MRSA as part of every staph infection treatment.

“Now every staph infection is tested for the MRSA strain,” Winfield said.

Although UHS does send out mass e-mails about flu vaccinations and immediate health concerns, Winfield said UHS has no plans to use e-mail to address MRSA because the infections still remain relatively infrequent at the University.

“At this point, it would raise alarm in the public,” Winfield said. “If we had a cluster of them, it’d be different, but I always worry about wearing out the welcome mat with e-mails. It’s a balance.”

Fears were heightened after this month’s Journal of the American Medical Association reported an increase in the number of deadly MRSA infections. The number of Americans killed each year by MRSA-related infections exceeds the number of deaths from AIDS.

However, 85 percent of MRSA deaths occur among the those already seeking care for medical treatment, a vulnerable group that notably includes the elderly and hospital patients, according to the American Medical Association.

Ernst said MRSA infections were once largely confined to people who were already sick or at risk, but that there has been a rise in MRSA infections among the general population over the past several years.

“We’ve seen cases at the UHS,” he said. “We’ve been seeing them increasingly over the past few years.”

According to Ernst, increased use of antibiotics to treat bacterial infections has contributed to the rise in MRSA cases.

“What’s happened is that we’ve taken a germ that’s relatively common, and it has genetically changed to acquire resistance to our antibiotics,” he said. “The hospitals have pushed the increasing use of antibiotics. Now we’re seeing the germ moving out of the hospitals and into the community.”

One University senior being treated for a staph infection is still waiting to hear from his doctors whether or not he has the MRSA strain. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he does not want to scare potential employers. He said he wasn’t too concerned about the results, but his mother was upset.

“My mom has heard everything about MRSA, and she is just freaking out,” he said.

Winfield said treating a MRSA infection is not that different than any other staph infection.

“If we think the infection might be MRSA, we use an additional antibiotic,” Winfield said. “This protocol has been completely successful at the University so far.”

Certain students are more at risk than others. Ernst said athletes, for example, are more vulnerable to staph infections because they often have cuts and are more likely to come into contact with other people’s exposed skin.

William Canning, the University’s director of Recreational Sports, said the department is aware of MRSA.

“Building services are trying to get additional funding to continue to clean and keep things more clear,” he said.

Canning also said he would consult with UHS to determine whether or not Rec Sports should notify intramural athletes about the existence of MRSA and how to prevent the infection.

Ernst said swelling and tender red areas on the skin that get significantly worse over a period of 24 hours are often staph infections, and he urged students who think they might be infected to seek help at UHS.

Ernst said that like most infections, the MRSA strain of staph can often be prevented by frequent hand washing.

“Not sharing items such as towels or razors and using a sanitary spray on gym equipment and mats can be helpful,” he said.

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