While the nation’s attention may continue to be focused on the deadly Ebola virus, the nation’s locker rooms, gyms and athletic facilities are (or should be) focused on a less deadly but far more contagious menace: Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA. MRSA is an antibiotic-resistant staph infection that can be transmitted through skin contact, and was once largely confined to hospitals and other healthcare facilities. Increasingly, however, it’s a problem for athletic facilities such as locker rooms, weight rooms and training facilities. Treated early, it can be eradicated without major consequences. Serious cases, however, can infect bone and tissue and lead to amputations and death. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between 1999 and 2005, the number of Americans hospitalized with MRSA more than doubled, and approximately 19,000 people die from MRSA-related illnesses annually.
The issue of MRSA is of concern to the NFL, and has been since 2005, when Brandon Noble, a former player for the Washington Redskins, contracted the disease following arthroscopic knee surgery. The Duke Infection Control Outreach Network told the Boston Globe last year that football players are 10 to 15 times more likely to contract MRSA than the general population. In the fall of last year, after three players for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were diagnosed with the infection, a Hazmat crew was brought in to disinfect the locker room of the Georgia Dome after a Buccaneers-Falcons game. Despite awareness and prevention in the NFL, the problem persists. It’s also not limited to professional sports.
In 2003, MRSA spread like wildfire through USC football players. By changing practices – washing uniforms in hotter temperatures and using disposable paper towels rather than cotton towels to wipe sweat during play – the team managed to largely eradicate the problem. The National Collegiate Athletic Association developed educational outreach programs for coaches and trainers in response to the outbreak, helping teams understand how to prevent outbreaks.
Even high school sports teams and clubs have seen outbreaks of the bacteria, and they are not unheard of at gyms. Increasingly, athletic facilities are instituting dress codes that require users to cover more skin, which can lower the chances of transmission of MRSA. This may include requiring sleeves on shirts and banning garments that expose the back, sides or midriff.
Southern Illinois University at Carbondale is the latest college athletics community to make a change to its dress code. The Daily Egyptian, SIU Carbondale’s newspaper, recently reported that beginning in January, patrons who use the personal fitness and wellness studio, upper track, and weight rooms will be required to wear shirts with sleeves. The policy will not apply to the basketball courts or the pool.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) maintains a list of recommendations for the prevention of MRSA in athletic settings, and may be found on the agency’s Web site.