By DAVID BRIGGS
Thursday, August 6, 2009
Brian Smith, Missouri’s no-nonsense wrestling coach who still mixes it up on the mats, is not someone who scares easily.
But even Smith’s wife has raised an eyebrow over his near-obsessive fight against one microscopic opponent: MRSA, the potentially fatal skin infection.
Before the Tigers’ daily wrestling practices, no space on campus is cleaner than the high and windowless 6,240-square foot room on the fourth floor of the Hearnes Center. The mats are disinfected daily and cleaned every three months with an antimicrobial concentrate. Gear and mopheads are washed after every workout at temperatures 140 degrees or higher. An oversize fan was installed to circulate the air and, before entering practice, wrestlers step onto a pad saturated with cleaning solution.
The locker room? Professionally sterilized and outfitted with the latest antibacterial soaps.
“We’re fanatical about it,” said Smith, who receives e-mail alerts on national cases of MRSA. “I probably do more than most coaches do, but we’ve had issues with skin diseases and MRSA scares me.”
It has been six years since an MRSA outbreak among the St. Louis Rams raised widespread awareness of the one-time hospital superbug’s incursion into athletic settings. But at Missouri, and schools across the country, the battle to find the most effective ways to combat the flesh-eating bacteria resistant to many antibiotics is stronger than ever.
In the breakneck world of modern college athletics, Missouri’s trainers and coaches are increasingly asking athletes to hold up and practice better hygiene habits while searching for new technology to fortify training facilities.
The wrestling and football teams, for instance, have recently begun using a product called Hibiclens. The cleanser, a long-time staple in operating rooms now commercially available, claims to actively kill 38 types of bacteria for six hours.
Smith said his program has not had a case of MRSA. Head athletic trainer Rex Sharp said there “more than likely” has been a MRSA incident at MU, but there haven’t been numerous problems.
“We’ve just managed it well,” he said.
Missouri is fighting to keep it this way. The last decade has shown the dangerous possibilities when open wounds, skin-to-skin contact and moist locker room conditions mix with a deadly — and evolving — strain of staph.
MRSA, or Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, was once relegated mostly to hospital settings and the chronically ill with weak immune systems inundated by batches of antibiotics. Not that locker rooms had been strangers to staph. About one in three healthy people carry staph on their skin or in their noses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the bacteria can lie in wait for years.
Infections, however, were easily treated. Only when a mutated variety of staph began widely penetrating the general population about a decade ago did concern emerge.
In the sporting ecosystem, MRSA steadily became a hot-button issue. Infections, which upon entering the bloodstream can attack any organ or tissue, were ending careers.
Ricky Lannetti, a 21-year-old senior wide receiver at Division III Lycoming College in Pennsylvania, died from MRSA on Dec. 6, 2003. Washington Redskins defensive lineman Brandon Noble nearly had his leg amputated after contracting MRSA in 2005. And Cleveland Browns center LeCharles Bentley, a prized free-agent acquisition in 2006, has not played since a knee injury suffered during his first training camp led to a life-threatening staph infection that ate away the tissue in his knee.
An NFL survey revealed there have been 93 cases of MRSA since 2002, including eight among five Rams players in 2003. The study reflects a broader trend. According to a 2007 study conducted by the CDC, cases of MRSA treated at hospitals have more than doubled over the past six years, from 127,000 in 1999 to 278,000 in 2005. Deaths increased from 11,000 to 17,000.
Sharp believes MU was on the vanguard of the collegiate fight against MRSA, largely because of his service on the College and University Athletic Trainers’ Committee. Before the group’s annual convention in January 2005, Sharp knew little about this lurking threat. But when the meetings highlighted MRSA and ABC’s “Primetime” news show descended on the meetings in Louisville, he knew something needed to be done.
“We had always been good with wounds and been careful,” Sharp said. “But we became a little more proactive.”
Trainers started to immediately cleanse and dress even the smallest turf burns, while the football locker room was professionally cleaned. Sharp and his staff also preached better hygiene practices: No sharing towels or razors. Wear clean clothes. And shower, shower, shower.
“I’m an old man, and back in the day when we played, we showered,” Sharp said. “Now guys, they get done with their workouts and if they have to go to class, they just jump in their cars. We want to make sure we hit them as much as we can.”
Mike Harbert, who works for a medical marketing group in St. Louis, said 25 colleges in Missouri are using Hibiclens to fight MRSA. And Hickman wrestling Coach J.D. Coffman said his team takes the threat seriously.
Besides standard measures such as disinfecting the mats each day, Coffman encourages wrestlers to cut their fingernails short — MRSA can enter the body even through a small scratch. He also doesn’t want the tough-minded to shy from medical attention.
“The biggest thing is keeping them informed,” Coffman said.
Nobody in town takes the threat more seriously than Smith. At a recent Missouri youth camp, he wondered if he put too much disinfecting concentrate on the mats. The solution was burning the wrestlers.
But he knew one thing.
“Those mats were definitely clean,” he said, laughing.
Keeping them that way means everything. Nothing can kill a camp business faster than an outbreak of skin infections. Nothing can undermine a team’s success — and recruiting — like a bacteria-polluted facility.
Nothing consumes Smith’s attention more.
“My wife says I’m crazy,” Smith said. “But, hey, I’m careful.”
Reach David Briggs at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was published on page B1 of the Thursday, August 6, 2009 edition of The Columbia Daily Tribune.
By DAVID BRIGGS