There have been rumors in recent weeks of MRSA (methicillin-resistant staph aureus) infection taking place in Cumberland County schools. According to officials, MRSA infection has not been a problem in the county as of late.

On Nov. 5, the Chronicle received an e-mail from a person identifying herself as a parent and claiming her child had been sent home from Stone Memorial High School on account of staph infection. In the e-mail, the person wrote that doctors and school officials were trying to cover up that infections were taking place.

Director of Schools Aarona VanWinkle told the Chronicle she had heard no such reports from either high school.

"I've not heard anything about it," she said. "To be honest with you, I'd tell you if I had."

MRSA is a type of infection resistant to many antibiotics, according to the Tennessee Department of Health Web site. Spread mainly through skin-to-skin and direct contact, 85 percent of MRSA infections are linked to health care settings. The remaining 15 percent are deemed community-associated.

When contacted about such a case occurring in Cumberland County schools, Debbie Hoy, epidemiologist for Upper Cumberland Regional Help Office, said of all the known cases of MRSA infection in the region, none of them have been children and none have been residents of Cumberland County. Furthermore, most reported cases were for persons more than 50 years old.

However, she did note the five-year-old child featured on the Nashville CBS-affiliate station is from the Nashville area.

Hoy told the Chronicle there were five reported cases of MRSA infection in the Upper Cumberland region last week. For 2007, there have been 93 cases in the region with the state having more than 1,500 cases of infection. Hoy noted that this does not include skin infections but only infections that occur in the bloodstream or spine.

Hoy said the health departments and school systems aren't overlooking the issue.

"All systems are taking it seriously," she said. "Schools aren't toning it down… They're working with sports teams and coaches and keeping school nurses informed. The state is talking to education personnel about this. No one is trying to hide anything."

VanWinkle said school nurses were receiving e-mails regularly from the health department keeping them up-to-date with school health issues.

In order to be reportable, MRSA infection must occur in the bloodstream or in the spine, according to Hoy. She explained the skin-type is not reportable since, like other organisms or bacteria, every individual carries them on the surface of his or her body. She noted a person could have a colonization of staph but not an actual infection.

Hoy said it's when the MRSA organisms have the opportunity to enter through a break in the skin that infection can take place.

The form of infection occurring in high schools is what's known as community-associated MRSA according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Web site.

MRSA is spread primarily through direct skin-to-skin contact. Hoy advised students to avoid contact with other people's skin as much as possible. For athletes with an infection, it might be best to avoid contact sports. To hinder the spread of staph, she recommended students practice good hygiene such as washing hands with soap and water. If using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, students should put on enough to cover the entirety of their hands and allow three to four minutes for it to dry on the skin. Also, the product should be at least 60 percent alcohol to be effective.

Hoy recommended athletes not share towels or razors. She said practice clothes should be washed as soon as the athlete gets home from practice or a game, adding that football pads should be cleaned too.

Another key to health is maintaining a clean environment through taking care of frequently touched surfaces on a regular basis and using detergent-based cleaners EPA-registered disinfectants, according to the CDC Web site.

The director of schools stated such precautions were being taken by county schools.

VanWinkle said locker rooms are being cleaned more frequently. Bleaches and many disinfectants are being used to clean various areas and surfaces. Schools are using hand-sanitizers, custodians are washing doorknobs and cleaning water fountains, and teachers have been asking students to wash their desktops, said the DOS.

According to the CDC Web site, unless instructed by a physician, students with MRSA infection should not be excluded from attending school. However, in the case of sports, if drainage cannot be covered or contained by bandages and if the student cannot keep good personal hygiene, students should not participate.

The state health Web site says signs of an infection might include an area on the body appearing to be a spider bite, boil, a cut or blister swollen and filled with fluid, or a turf burn.