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Be vigilant to prevent contracting staph infection from public places

In general, locker rooms, schools and even hospitals are not considered cesspools for germs.

But these locations have recently been pinpointed as places where staph infections can grow and be spread from one person to another.

Cases of the bacteria have been reported in metro Atlanta, though there have not been many in Gwinnett County, health officials say.

While staph is one of the most frequent causes of skin infections - and sometimes causes more severe blood and wound infections - local health officials say there's no reason to panic.

"It's been around for years, it's nothing new," said Vernon Goins, Gwinnett County Health Department spokesman. In some cases, staph can cause severe sickness or death in children, Goins added, though the infection is usually treatable with antibiotics.

But state and local health officials have recently been sending warnings of a new resistant strain of the disease.

MRSA (pronounced mursa), an acronym for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, is a type of staph infection that has become resistant to certain antibiotics, making it more difficult to treat.

While antibiotics are an effective remedy for the bacteria most of the time, after many years of use, the treatment has lost its ability to fight some infections. Because of this resistance, some people have developed severe cases of staph - and, in some instances, death has been a result.

"It's spread most often by skin-to-skin contact," Goins said. "I personally call it the locker room bug."

Gym equipment, school desks and hospital rooms are possible places where the germs can be spread. Sharing towels, clothing, bedding, and gym or sports equipment with someone who has or is carrying the bacteria can easily move the germ from one person to the next.

Though there has been no county-wide outbreak of the bug, Gwinnett County Public Schools is notifying parents with letters and information on its Web site about staph and ways to prevent and recognize an infection.

While data collected by the Journal of the American Medical Association shows 5,287 invasive infections (invasive infections can spread through the blood or can destroy flesh) were reported in 2005, Goins said Gwinnett has not seen many occurrences.

"The numbers of MSRA cases are increasing slightly, but it certainly isn't anything new," Goins said.

In Gwinnett, staph infections are reported to the health department only if someone with the disease is hospitalized or dies, Goins said. An infection was reported by a local hospital last week, but Goins said the case was simply a skin infection, most likely diagnosed and treated in an emergency room but reported because it was treated within the hospital.

"No deaths have been recorded in Gwinnett County," Goins said.

Medical experts say the infection can be stopped with proper hygiene. Gwinnett health department officials recommend keeping hands clean and washed with soap or alcohol-based hand sanitizer, covering and cleaning cuts and scrapes until healed, avoiding contact with other people's wounds or bandages and refraining from sharing personal items, such as towels and razors.

Though it spreads quickly and easily, treatment is an option for MRSA skin infections.

Draining of the abscess or boil by a doctor, is the most common action, and in some cases skin infections do not need to be treated with antibiotics, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"It's common and it's in every community," Goins said of the bacteria. "We carry it on our bodies and it only becomes a problem if gets into the bloodstream and wounds."

SideBar: Staph Info

' Often misdiagnosed, a staph infection typically looks like a spider bite with redness, swelling, pus, boils or blisters, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

' MRSA-infected skin sores can change from skin irritations to abscesses or a more severe skin infection, and if left untreated can move into the blood or bone.

' Staph bacteria can survive on a surface for more than 24 hours.

' Avoid staph by keeping hands clean, covering and cleaning cuts and scrapes until healed, avoiding contact with others' wounds or bandages, and refraining from sharing personal items, such as towels and razors.