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Research News at Vanderbilt

Study finds college athletes more likely to harbor MRSA


College athletes who play contact sports are more than twice as likely to carry the deadly superbug methicillin-resistant Staphylocuccus aureus (MRSA) than peers who play non-contact sports, according to a Vanderbilt study released at IDWeek 2014.

Football, soccer and other contact sport athletes were found to have MRSA on their bodies, usually in their noses and throats, even if they didn’t show signs of infection. As MRSA carriers, they are at higher risk for infection and more likely to spread MRSA, which can cause serious and even fatal infections.

Natalia Jimenez-Truque, Ph.D., and Buddy Creech, M.D., MPH, are studying MRSA in college athletes. (photo by Anne Rayner)

Colonization with MRSA ranged from 8 to 31 percent in contact sports athletes during the two-year study, compared to 0 to 23 percent of non-contact athletes.

Roughly 5 to 10 percent of the general population is colonized with MRSA.

“This study shows that even outside of a full scale outbreak, when athletes are healthy and there are no infections, there are still a substantial number of them who are colonized with these potentially harmful bacteria,” said lead study author Natalia Jimenez-Truque, Ph.D., research instructor in Pediatric Infectious Diseases.

“Sports teams can decrease the spread of MRSA by encouraging good hygiene in their athletes, including frequent hand washing and avoiding sharing towels and personal items such as soap and razors,” she said.

It is the first study to observe college athletes who are not part of a larger MRSA outbreak.
Researchers followed a total of 377 male and female varsity athletes playing 14 different sports and compared the 224 playing contact sports, such as football, soccer, basketball and lacrosse, with the 153 athletes playing non-contact sports, including baseball, cross country and golf.

Each athlete had monthly nasal and throat swabs over the course of two academic years.

The study found contact athletes acquired MRSA more quickly and were colonized longer than non-contact athletes, likely because they have frequent skin-to-skin contact that can lead to cuts and scrapes that allow the bug to colonize the body.

“Skin is our first defense against bacterial infections. Therefore, one of the most effective things athletes can do is simply cover areas of broken skin, such as turf burns,” said senior author Buddy Creech, M.D., MPH, associate professor of Pediatric Infectious Diseases.

MRSA is a leading cause of skin and soft tissue infections, which often heal on their own or are easily treated.

But the invasive form of MRSA can cause pneumonia and infections of the blood, heart, bone, joints and central nervous system, and kills about 18,000 people every year. Invasive MRSA is difficult to treat because standard antibiotic therapy may be ineffective, and physicians often must turn to powerful antibiotics delivered via IV.

“Staph is a problematic germ for us — always has been, always will be — and we need to do all we can to reduce the risk of infection in those at highest risk, such as college athletes,” Jimenez-Truque said.

IDWeek 2014 is an annual meeting of the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA), the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America (SHEA), the HIV Medicine Association (HIVMA) and the Pediatric Infectious Diseases Society (PIDS).

With the theme “Advancing Science, Improving Care,” IDWeek features the latest science and bench-to-bedside approaches in prevention, diagnosis, treatment and epidemiology of infectious diseases, including HIV, across the lifespan.

IDWeek 2014 takes place Oct. 8-12 at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia.
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