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MARKET BY MARKET: Education

Keeping The MRSA Bacteria At Bay

By Corinne Zudonyi
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Educational facilities across the country have been plagued by recent health outbreaks. In some instances, children or teachers have died as a result of illnesses that they contracted within school walls, forcing facility managers to close down for deep cleaning. The only problem is, most health outbreaks can’t be nixed solely by cleaning departments. It also requires a behavioral change on behalf of the building occupant — i.e. improving personal hygiene.

Although it isn’t new, MRSA (Methicillian-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) is sweeping the nation as the most recent health concern in schools. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), this sometimes deadly staph infection is responsible for more deaths each year in the United States than the AIDS virus.

Contracting this superbug often results in skin infections or rashes that resemble spider bites or rug burns. Persons who are infected are often resistant to many types of antibiotics, making it very difficult to treat.

Because of recent outbreaks, cleaning departments throughout the country have been forced to take appropriate steps to prevent the spread of MRSA. But that is easier said than done. This infection is easily transmitted, just like any other virus or bacteria, making it difficult to combat. Those infected often get it from touching common surfaces such as door knobs, hand rails, desk tops, light switches or one another. It can also be spread through the shared use of sports equipment, bar soaps or towels.

Cleaning To The Rescue
School officials have been quick to respond following an outbreak within their facility. Some departments are focusing on increasing cleaning efficiencies, while others have decided to temporarily close their doors.

In some facilities, cleanliness is judged by appearance. But, as most cleaning managers know, the lack of dirt does not mean a lack of infectious bacteria. Systematic cleaning is essential. According to health officials, virtually any cleaning, including vacuuming and mopping, will help reduce MRSA bacteria within a facility.

Although it is not the only step necessary to prevent the spread of this infection, it has been found that this type of targeted cleaning could actually do more than was previously perceived.

Some areas within the schools require more advanced cleaning, such as locker rooms, restrooms and areas where athletics take place. To combat the spread of infections in these areas, cleaners should maintain separate cleaning mops and buckets. If possible, washable microfiber flatmops or disposable mop cloths are preferred, but if these are not available, cleaners should clean mop heads and buckets regularly to prevent the spread of infection.

To take prevention one step further, cleaners should frequently wipe commonly touched surfaces with liquid disinfectant cleaning products. The CDC recommends using detergent-based cleaners or Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-registered disinfectants. The EPA provides a list of registered products effective against MRSA at http://epa.gov/oppad001/chemregindex.htm. To be effective, these products should be used appropriately and according to instructions.

When disinfecting, crews should pay special attention to dwell time by allowing cleaners to reside on surfaces long enough to fight bacteria. Doing so will not only help reduce the spread of MRSA, it can prevent the spread of other viruses transferred from building occupants hands.

Closing The Doors
Although some health officials have reportedly stated that closing a school following an outbreak to address cleaning concerns is not necessary, many facilities have done exactly that. Following an outbreak, cleaning professionals have taken extra measures to disinfect the schools in an effort to eliminate any chance of further spreading the infection.

That said, many health experts comment that depending on the type of cleaning typically done within the facility, additional efforts might not minimize the spread of MRSA. In fact, many cleaning departments already disinfect surfaces to adequately keep the spread of illness at bay.

One report indicated that cleaning top to bottom and disinfecting or sanitizing with specialized chemicals does not lower the risk of spreading an infection. According to Dr. James Phillips, branch chief of infectious diseases at the Arkansas Department of Health, MRSA is “spread by person-to-person contact in almost all cases. Therefore, closing schools for cleaning will have minimal impact and is not routinely recommended.”

Dr. Phillips adds that what many people don’t realize is that about one-third of the population carries this staph bacteria on their person, spreading it to surfaces they are in contact with. And in reality, it is extremely rare to develop MRSA from contact with surfaces such as desks and cafeteria tables.

Dr. Katherine Nicholas of the Lynchburg, Va. Health Department comments, “Shutting down, cleaning and going through expensive cleaning procedures is not going to reduce anybody’s risk of contracting MRSA. The things that need to be clean are [your hands].”

Building Occupants Lend A Hand
The best way to prevent the spread of MRSA is to encourage building occupants to wash their hands with warm water and soap. Some schools have implemented programs that encourage regular hand washing by providing anti-bacterial handwipes and sprays in every classroom — a great alternative in situations where water is not available. Experts recommend using a 60 percent alcohol-based hand sanitizer whenever possible.

It is important to note, also, that student athletes are at high risk for contracting MRSA and it is ideal that schools supply and encourage athletes to use individual personal items (bar soaps, towels, etc.) when necessary.

In addition to occupant education and regular cleaning tasks, cleaning crews should focus their attention on disinfecting shared spaces and commonly touched items on a regular basis. Paying special attention to the prevention of infections will reduce the likelihood of an outbreak within the facility.

posted on: 2/1/2008





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