Staph infections becoming big concern

Published October 8, 2006

WEST PALM BEACH - Donald Law never heard of a staph infection until a doctor discovered one on his underarm.

"It looked like a normal boil, but I couldn't move my arm above my shoulder," said Law, Wellington High School's starting sophomore tailback. "And it hurt."

Law, who likely contracted the infection from his shoulder pads rubbing against exposed skin, had to have the infected area drained, and he sat out last week's game.

He is one of numerous high school football players in Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast to be treated in the past two seasons for a bacterial skin infection. Last year, the Palm Beach County school board, alarmed over the growing number of cases, formed a committee to research MRSA - Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus - a type of staph infection that has become prevalent the past several years.

The committee has since distributed literature on MRSA and tips on proper hygiene to county athletic directors. Staph infections are often contracted from skin-to-skin contact, contaminated items, crowding and poor hygiene, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Of the 44 area football coaches contacted for this story, 15 said that in the past two years at least one player on their team had a skin infection. Eleven of the coaches used the term staph; three used the term impetigo, a bacterial infection usually caused by staph; and one coach said he wasn't sure what was on his players' arms and legs.

There is no school board policy about reporting cases of infection in athletics, but Pahokee coach Leroy Foster said he had nine athletes with staph infections this season and Seminole Ridge's Matt Dickmann said five of his players had infections. An assistant coach at King's Academy might have to have his finger amputated because of a staph infection.

Most coaches said their players had mild cases of staph or impetigo. The players took antibiotics and had their infected areas bandaged. Others had boils either drained or lanced to prevent further complications.

Many area coaches believe players with infections aren't reporting to team trainers or seeking proper treatment.

Dr. Monroe Benaim, a Palm Beach County school board member who was on the MRSA research committee, is concerned that parents aren't taking the threat seriously, or don't know about it.

Post-practice and post-game hygiene is important in preventing the spread of infection.

"High school kids today don't shower, and it's really kind of gross," Fort Pierce Central coach Chris Hutchings said.

Nearly every coach interviewed expressed concern about showering habits.

"Routine hygiene is one of the first steps (against infection)," said Dr. Richard Barfield of Jupiter Urgent Care. "It's not going to stop it, but it will certainly limit and reduce some unnecessary MRSA infections."

Barfield said he sees up to five high school athletes a week with staph, and he said wrestling is another sport with a serious risk factor.