Putnam County has joined the every-growing list of Indiana counties affected by the so-called "superbug" known simply as MRSA (pronounced "mersa"), but health officials say that with a few added precautions, the drug-resistant form of staph can be successfully avoided.
After at least one case was reported at DePauw University this week and in a separate incident, several members in one local family contracted the illness from each other, Putnam County Health Officer Dr. Robert Heavin said that good hygiene habits are key to keeping the skin-marring illness at bay.
"Hygiene has become an issue," he said, pointing to school-age children - who often don't practice good hygiene - as the main target.
Also at risk are people with implanted medical devices such as ports, pick lines and I.V.'s as bacteria can enter the bloodstream through those sources.
Dr. Heavin said he advised school officials in the county to emphasize the importance of good hygiene habits to students, especially those who participate in sports programs.
Weight-lifting equipment and locker rooms are prime breeding sites for the moisture-loving bacteria that cause staph infections, Dr. Heavin explained. The danger comes when students pass germs through their sweat, which is typically left behind on pieces of equipment, he said.
The health department suggests school officials clean the equipment by wiping it off with one part bleach to nine parts water (or 10 percent bleach). Alcohol may be used, however, Dr. Heavin said he is not sure that it cleanses as well as bleach.
In addition to good hygiene habits, the CDC suggests avoiding sharing personal items such as towels and razors and covering skin trauma such as abrasions or cuts.
Staph infections are nothing new to Putnam County, Dr. Heavin explained, however, they are typically thought to affect people who have been hospitalized or institutionalized.
The fact that the infections are now targeting the younger group is why the issue has gotten so much play in the national media of late, he said.
"It seems to have developed in a different kind of pool," he said.
For the general public, Dr. Heavin suggests good cleansing habits, as well as avoiding cuts and scrapes on the skin. These openings are precisely where bacteria enter the body and if left untreated, can enter the bloodstream and lead to serious illness or death.
There have been no reported deaths in Putnam County, of late, from staph infections.
The national Center for Disease Control and Prevention states that staph infections are marked by their painful blisters or boils that appear on the exterior of the body and often have pus or other drainage emitting from them. Dr. Heavin says these boils must be treated to prevent them from allowing the infection to infiltrate the bloodstream.
It is suggested that anyone who contracts one of these boils should apply a wet compress and consult their doctor immediately. In some cases, as was the case with a DePauw professor, surgery may be required to drain the fluid out of the boil and to encourage healing.
As of Tuesday, the health department didn't have any solid statistics on the current number of people in Putnam County who might be infected with the illness. That is mainly because doctors are not required to report this particular illness when it occurs in their patients.
Dr. Heavin guessed that in a random group of 500 students, one or two might have the illness. He suggested that doctors voluntarily report any cases they come across at their individual practices.