When two students at a Portland summer recreation camp contracted an antibiotic-resistant bacterial skin infection, the city went beyond what is required by the state for disease notifications.

There’s no requirement that MRSA skin infections be reported to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, but the city notified the Maine CDC anyway, as well as parents in a letter sent home with students.

“We definitely took it seriously, and we wanted parents to be well-informed,” said Portland city spokeswoman Jessica Grondin. “While the infections are common, they can become serious if they’re not treated.”

There’s no indication that the students contracted the MRSA infection from the rec camp at Riverton Community Center, although both attend the camp for K-4 students, according to the city.

City staff spent Monday and Tuesday cleaning and disinfecting the community center overnight and while students were away on field trips, according to Sally DeLuca, director of the city’s parks, recreation and facilities department.

Dr. Dora Anne Mills, vice president of clinical affairs at the University of New England and former Maine CDC director, said in most cases a young, healthy person getting a MRSA skin infection will not experience any long-lasting medical problems.

“In many cases it will self-resolve or clear up with very simple measures, such as cleaning, covering it up and maybe putting a topical cream on it,” Mills said.

MRSA can be spread through contact, but it is not an airborne disease and not as contagious as the measles or chicken pox.

“I would not be afraid to send kids to that summer camp,” Mills said.

Dr. Siiri Bennett, Maine CDC epidemiologist, said MRSA is common, and to prevent it people should take precautions such as not sharing towels, razors or other personal hygiene products and covering any scrapes, boils or wounds. People who play contact sports should also be wary of contracting MRSA.

“We know it’s out there in the community. You can’t tell by looking at the infection whether it’s an MRSA infection or not,” Bennett said.

While a simple MRSA skin infection is not reportable to the Maine CDC or tracked by the agency, an invasive MRSA infection – an infection that has migrated to the bloodstream or lungs, for example – is reportable. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not require reporting of any MRSA infections, skin-based or invasive. Many people carry MRSA bacteria and don’t have any symptoms.

Invasive MRSA infections are dangerous and life-threatening, because they are difficult to treat. MRSA is a type of staph bacteria that is resistant to common antibiotics, such as penicillin, methicillin and amoxicillin.

In 2011 – the most recent data available – invasive MRSA was responsible for more than 11,000 deaths in the U.S., according to federal statistics. In many cases, MRSA was acquired in hospitals or other health care settings where people with suppressed immune systems had trouble fighting the infections, according to the federal CDC.

Maine had 192 cases of invasive MRSA infections in 2015, the most recent data available, according to the Maine CDC. Four of the patients died and 113 were hospitalized. The average age of those who contracted invasive MRSA in 2015 was 60.

About 10-15 years ago, MRSA infections acquired at hospitals were more common, but since then, hospitals including Maine Medical Center have taken steps to reduce MRSA infections, said Dr. August Valenti, infectious disease specialist at Maine Med.

Valenti said Maine Med now screens all of its patients for MRSA, and if they carry the bacteria, they are treated with antibiotics as a preventive measure prior to surgery.

“There are certain select antibiotics that we can use to treat it,” Valenti said.

Valenti said if patients are MRSA carriers, other steps are taken, such as giving them a private room and making sure doorknobs and other areas commonly touched by others are frequently disinfected.

The incidence of MRSA infections at Maine Med has plummeted from about 4 cases per 1,000 patient days about 15 years ago to 0.38 cases per 1,000 patient days now, Valenti said.

Bill Marler, a Seattle-based national public health advocate who works to prevent food-borne illnesses, said MRSA is a serious concern, and he commended Maine for requiring that invasive MRSA be reported. Only a handful of states require invasive MRSA be reported to state health agencies, according to the federal CDC.

Marler said invasive MRSA reporting should be required in all states, to give health experts more insight into the scope of the problem and help determine what actions, if any, need to be taken.

Marler said even among young, healthy populations, MRSA can be dangerous if transmitted to others.

“If you’re on the high school wrestling team, and you get MRSA, you can bring it home to Grandma,” Marler said. “Given the large numbers of people this is happening to, we need to understand where and why it’s happening.”

Joe Lawlor can be reached at 791-6376 or at:

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