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The Wrestling Bug

The Secret Life of Scientists and EngineersThe Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers

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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.

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One of the most well known superbugs is MRSA ( M ethicillin- R esistant S taphylococcus A ureus), 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.

The Wrestling Bug-wrestlingginny.jpg
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

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