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Is your beach contaminated with MRSA?

September 12, 2009 | 11:33 am

Staphylococcus aureus is a common bug that can cause serious infections. An antibiotic-resistant strain, called MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), has increased dramatically in recent years. It typically spreads in hospitals. But it's also found in healthy people in the community. It spreads from skin-to-skin contact with someone who is infected, or by touching surfaces contaminated with the germ.
 
Little is known about places in the environment where MRSA can hide. A study presented today, however, is the first to show that public beaches may be reservoirs for the bug. Staph was isolated in marine water and in intertidal beach sand in nine of 10 public beaches in Washington state, and half of the strains were MRSA, according to the study from researchers at the University of Washington. When examined, those strains appeared to be the type that spreads in hospitals rather than community-acquired MRSA.

How beaches are becoming contaminated with hospital-acquired MRSA is unknown, said the lead author of the study, Dr. Marilyn C. Roberts. The study was presented this morning at the Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy in San Francisco.

"Where all these organisms are coming from and how they are getting seeded, we don't know," Roberts said. The samples were "grab-and-go" samples, meaning that researchers didn't spend a lot of time thinking about where to collect the samples. And, Roberts said, "the fact that we found these organisms suggests [beach contamination] is much higher than we normally thought."

Another study on beach sand, published in June in the Journal of Epidemiology, found that people who dug in the sand or covered themselves with sand were more likely to have diarrheal illnesses in the following week or two compared with beachgoers who just walked on the beach or lay on the sand. The most likely scenario for MRSA infection, Roberts said, is getting sand in a cut or abrasion. But the risk of getting MRSA at the beach cannot be estimated at this time.

"We don't know what the risk is because nobody's done a good study," she said.

Roberts also tested two beaches in Southern California and did not find MRSA. But that should not reassure beachgoers in California -- or anywhere. Testing of the samples from California beaches was delayed, which may have affected the quality of the test, Roberts said.

The best advice for beachgoers is to cover open skin wounds and wash off sand thoroughly. People who have weakened immune systems because of other illnesses should take special care with open wounds.

"I'm not telling people not to go to the beach," Roberts said. "But if, all of a sudden, you have a skin rash and it doesn't get better, you need to go and be seen."

-- Shari Roan

Photo credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

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Comments (5)

I got MRSA last Oct. and spent a total of 4 wks in the Seattle VA Hosp,. I live in Westport WA. and take my black lab to the beach at Half Moon Bay everyday , which is apparently one of the beaches identified as one where MRSA was found. Having gone through what I did, with the end result being the development of the intestinal disease Colitis, I'm wondering why the local health board has not notified the public about the findings of the latest research. What the hell is going on ?

Has Dana Point Harbor in California been tested? We were there in March of 2008, and five days later, my husband was dead from MRSA sepsis/pneumonia.

The US is really turning into a 3rd world country, more and more. Politics, disease, overcrowding, crumbling infrastracture. Very scary article.

I live in La Jolla and swim almost every day in the ocean at the La Jolla Shores Beach. About a week ago my arm/shoulder were so badly infected that I went to the emergency room. I hadn't hurt myself and it just came out of the blue. It turns out that I had a Staph (antibiotic resistant strain) Infection. The lab at Scripps called me several days after taking some tests to tell me that my infection was very serious because of the resistance to antibiotics. Well now after 2000 mg (4 horse pills) of keflex a day & 2 huge pills of Bactrim % tons of creams etc perscribed my infection has gotten much better and hopefully will be all gone in the next 3 or 4 days.

I live in Holland, where a new strain of MRSA (NT-MRSA) has occurred since the last four years. This typical strain is directly related to the "production" of pigs, calves and chicken in very large stables. Already 60% of the pigs and 88 % of the calves are infected... This MRSA spreads from the animals to people who work with them, such as the farmes and their families, veterinarians, transporters and slaughter-houses. At this moment Dutch hospitals have big problems in keeping their environment MRSA-free.
This strain has been titled NT-MRSA (Non-typable-MRSA). There are already several studies available over this issue. Perhaps the MRSA on you beaches comes from intensive animal-production??



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