to Plague Prisons, Jails
by Michael Rigby
Chelsea Johnson, 30, said it began as a small pimple that formed on her right cheek shortly after she arrived at the Orange County Jail in 2003. Three days later, her entire face was swollen and she felt feverish. A nurse examined her but failed to prescribe any medication, she said.
Johnson was released after 6 days, but it took another 4 months and several trips to the doctor before the culpritMethicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus, or MRSAwas diagnosed. By that time, the infection had spread over her face and body. I felt like a leper," she said. I just didn't want to go outside. I couldn't live my life.
With outbreaks of MRSA on the rise nationwide, stories like Johnson's are becoming more common. It's an emerging epidemic," said Dr. Gonzalo Ballon-Landa, an infectious disease consultant in San Diego County. Doctors in California and the whole community are not picking up yet on the fact that [it] is here.
Staph bacteria is commonly found on the skin and in the nose of healthy people. When it enters the body through the skin or another route, however, it can cause a variety of illnesses, including pneumonia and infections of the skin, bone, and bloodstream. MRSA is an especially virulent form of the bacteria that is resistant to most antibiotics and is often fatal. Because it is passed through contact with skin or other surfaces such as linens and towels, MRSA is particularly problematic in hospitals, prisons, and jails.
California. Perhaps nowhere is the problem more obvious than in the Los Angeles County Jail where about 200 prisoners a month are diagnosed with MRSA. In 2002, Los Angeles County jails originally misdiagnosed the MRSA infections as spider bites. That year, 921 prisoners contracted Staph; in 2003, 1,849 were identified as having the infection; and in 2004 the number of new cases rose to 2,480.
In addition, four guards have also contracted MRSA. One claims he passed the infection to his newborn. Jail officials have yet to confirm that the infections were contracted at the jail, but the guard's union remains concerned. When you're processing close to 1,000 new people on a daily basis, it's a huge problem," said Steve Remige, vice president of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs.
MRSA is also prevalent in California prisons. At the Pelican Bay State Prison several prisoners were reportedly under quarantine on December 30, 2004. In 2004, Pelican Bay experienced about 4 new cases of MRSA per month, said spokeswoman Margot Bach. She said prisoners diagnosed with MRSA are housed individually at a separate unit and denied visitors. Bach noted that the particularly cramped conditions of prison life cause sporadic outbreaks of MRSA in the state's prison system. Three prison guards are also suing the DOC claiming they were exposed to the bacteria.
North Carolina. In North Carolina, confirmation that two prisoners were infected with MRSA prompted the state Department of Corrections (DOC) to halt all prisoner transfers. One prisoner was diagnosed with the infection on July 16, 2004, the second on July 21. MRSA infection was suspected in 17 other prisoners, said DOC spokeswoman Pam Walker. Some prisoners were treated at a hospital and released.
Tennessee. In December 2004, several" prisoners were quarantined at the Williamson County Jail in Tennessee and treated with antibiotics after an MRSA outbreak there. Jennifer Mitchell's husband, Matt Mitchell, was one of those infected. My husband was put in quarantine with 10 or 15 other people. He had a big lump, the size of an egg, under his arm and it was bleeding," she said. They have a nursing staff over there, but they said they weren't sure what it was. There were other people with bumps on their arms, too.
Other locales. Other jails have also been affected by outbreaks of MRSA. According to an Associated Press article, the Dallas County (Texas) Jail reported that more than 700 prisoners were infected in a recent three month period and that about 120 sheriff's department employees had contracted MRSA since 2002. At the Calhoun County Jail in Battle Creek, Michigan, two prisoners died on March 1, 2004, from MRSA infections.
Despite the growing prevalence of MRSAespecially in prisons and jailsthe government has been slow to respond. This is disturbing since prisoners may pass the bacteria to guards and family members who then carry the infection back to community. It is a concern to us, and we're doing everything we can to address it," said Los Angeles County Sheriff's Chief Chuck Jackson. But it's not a perfect world, and we're not going to catch it every time.
The best way to prevent Staph infections, notes the federal Center for Disease Control, is through frequent hand washing, keeping cuts and scrapes clean and bandaged, and by not sharing personal items such as razors and towels. PLN has reported extensively on MRSA. See indexes for more.
Sources: Los Angeles Times, AP, Miami Herald
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