After years of worrying about pandemic flu, the mainstream media have given us a new reason to become agoraphobics – MRSA.

Haven’t heard this new acronym yet? It stands for Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus.  And, if you were to believe the Connecticut newspapers lately, it’s running rampant in Connecticut schools; so much so that the state government decided to open up a hotline on it.  The Governor has even written to Connecticut schools about it.

Before discussing this latest "disease trend" story, it helps to understand what MRSA is and is not.  For Connecticut employers in certain industries, educating employees about the facts of MRSA may help reduce the fears that some employees may get from reading the headlines.  (In case you are wondering, one reason why we’re seeing more stories, was a recent medical study that showed that MRSA infections are becoming more common among healthy, non-hospitalized persons.) 

According to the Centers for Disease Control, MRSA is a type of common bacterial infection known as "staph".  Staph are, in fact, quite common.  Staph are:

bacteria commonly carried on the skin or in the nose of healthy people. Approximately 25% to 30% of the population is colonized (when bacteria are present, but not causing an infection) in the nose with staph bacteria. Sometimes, staph can cause an infection. Staph bacteria are one of the most common causes of skin infections in the United States. Most of these skin infections are minor (such as pimples and boils) and can be treated without antibiotics….

MRSA is a type of staph infection that is resistant to some anti-biotics.  While 25% to 30% of the population is colonized with staph, approximately 1% is colonized with MRSA.

Here’s the most important fact about MRSA — it’s typically preventable AND treatable despite the media’s portrayal of MRSA being a "superbug".  The New York Times has a good summary as well.

The Washington Post has summarized the steps you can take to minimize your risk of infection from MRSA.  There are also several EPA-registered disinfectants that can be used that are effective against MRSA. 

I’m not minimizing the seriousness of MRSA — it can be deadly in some instances.  But the news articles lately here have tended to be a bit on the alarmist side, without providing the necessary perspective and information about it.  With good hygiene and some simple preventative steps, the risks of a workplace outbreak of MRSA can be reduced significantly. 

As the media hype over MRSA continues, employers — particularly those in more sensitive areas such as health clubs or health care industries — can consider sending out a short note to their employees reminding them to use good hygiene.  In particular, good hand-washing and/or use of alcohol-based cleaners like Purell can go a long way to making sure the workplace remains relatively safe.  (Indeed, despite the media hype, the CDC’s guidance tends not to focus on the workplace in general since the risk of transmission remains low, unlike the school setting.) 

Employers can also remind their cleaning staffs that thorough cleaning of bathrooms and gym areas will help reduce the risk of infection as well.  (Those employers with in-house workout facilities should pay particular attention to this.)  Of course, for hospitals and health care workers, OSHA has specific guidance to follow as well; this guidance is not new. 

In short, employers should treat the latest MRSA media-frenzy with a proper dose of perspective.  As we start entering flu and cold season, a gentle reminder about good hygiene may help reduce the risks present in the workplace.