Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) has been scaring the public and health community due to its resistance to antibiotics and how it is easily spread in communities and health care facilities. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), MRSA is spreading:
The estimated number of people developing a serious MRSA infection (i.e., invasive) in 2005 was about 94,360; this is higher than estimates using other methods. Approximately 18,650 persons died during a hospital stay related to these serious MRSA infections.
MRSA can survive for months on surfaces, which makes the recent discovery of this deadly bacteria in the sand and water of public beaches on the west coast especially worrisome. Researchers at the University of Washington found MRSA at seven public beaches in the Puget Sound region. Staph bacteria was found at nine of the ten beaches tested, but the presence of MRSA has researchers worried, as the samples resembled the hospital-acquired MRSA rather than community-associated MRSA. Lead researcher Marilyn Roberts explains, “Our results suggest that public beaches may be a reservoir for possible transmission of MRSA.”
The source of the MRSA bacteria on public beaches appears to be environmental, suggesting beaches “may represent an ‘ecosystem,’ where bacteria thrive, mingle and swap genes, particularly those confer antibiotic resistance.” Staph thrives in salty environments, according to University of Chicago infectious disease specialist Lance Peterson. Beaches tested in Southern California did not contain MRSA.
This is not the first time beaches have been suspected sources of MRSA. In 2004, Florida commercial fisherman suspected beaches and salt water as the source of their increased staph infections. Environment News Service reports:
While there is no direct link as yet, MRSA infections involving beach activities and commercial fishing have become increasingly common in Florida…Howard Rodenburg, M.D., director of the Volusia County Department of Health, when asked about the investigation into the fishermen’s and beach goers’ MRSA infections in 2003 stated, “I don’t perceive they are getting infections from contact with the ocean. I think the bacteria are colonizing within the human community on fishing boats,” he said, explaining that MRSA is ubiquitous, with 20 to 30 percent of the population housing the bacteria on their skin or in their mucous membranes. “Fishermen in general have poor hygiene in a close quartered environment.”
However, Alan Tice, M.D., an infectious disease specialist with the University of Hawaii, believes the answer might lie elsewhere. “I think ocean water is definitely a potential source of MRSA.” Tice said. “We have found in Hawaii as many as 100 MRSA colonies per liter of sea water. We think it is human activity related. When people are on the beach, rates rise in the daytime and are lower at night.”
Whether the source is human activity or the environment, beach goers should take precautions. The CDC recommends hand washing as the best defense against MRSA. Keep open wounds covered when going to the beach and avoid sharing towels. The actual risk of contracting MRSA at the beach is not currently known.