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The Wrestling Bug

Click here for Rachel’s profile.

Rachel’s day job—testing how bacteria react to our dwindling antibiotic arsenal—is extremely important, for drug resistance is one of our scariest public health threats.

One of the most well known superbugs is MRSA (Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus), which causes painful sores, fever and pneumonia and is impervious to a slew of common drugs. Every year, more than two million MRSA infections rack up some $4.5 billion in healthcare costs and kill 90,000 people.

As recently as 1998, MRSA was thought to be a problem only in hospitals and other confined settings, such as nursing homes and prisons. But in the past decade, researchers have realized, much to their horror, that the bug crops up all over the place—including, famously, in high school wrestlers.

In 1993, for example, one boy on a high school wrestling team in Vermont got an infection on his arm. It healed, but he still managed to spread it to his teammates and to wrestlers from 11 other teams. Years later, the incident was recognized as one of the first MRSA outbreaks outside of a hospital.

New wrestling hold… the "Anti-Bacterial Scrub."

It makes sense: wrestlers have lots of skin-to-skin contact, not to mention cuts and excess body fluids, all of which makes it easy to transmit infections. Plus, many high school athletes wait until they get home to take a shower, rather than use the locker room. (And how many do you think actually scrub their masks, pads, and clothes immediately after a match?)

There’s a growing awareness of the superbug problem among public health authorities. For example, many high school athletic associations have issued hygiene guidelines to prevent the spread of MRSA. Last week, the National Institutes of Health announced that there will be four new clinical trials in the next five years to test how changing the dosage and duration of known drugs can help stave off infection.

Still, few new drugs are in development, and the bugs get stronger every day. In a study published earlier this year, microbiologists collected samples from various surfaces—such as wrestling mats, and locker room benches, sinks, and doorknobs—in nine high schools in rural Ohio. Every single school had at least one surface that tested positive for MRSA.

So, wrestlers, hit the showers, will ya?

(I first read about MRSA and wrestling in the fantastic book, SUPERBUG, by science writer Maryn McKenna. For the latest news about all things MRSA, check out Maryn’s blog at Wired Science.)

Photo by jdanvers on Flickr

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Virginia Hughes

    Virginia Hughes is a freelance science writer in Brooklyn, New York, and she specializes in brains, genes, and the biotech industry. After wrangling human subjects in a large virtual reality lab, she turned to journalism and has since worked at Discover Magazine, Seed Magazine, and the science desk of National Public Radio. Her job entails visiting some of the world’s best laboratories, writing news and feature stories in her pajamas, Tweeting, and contributing to the delightfully quirky science blog, The Last Word on Nothing. Virginia’s secret life revolves around two activities: critiquing trendy New York City restaurants and playing with other people’s puppies.