I remember looking out of a hospital window and seeing my college campus on the other side of the highway-- I was supposed to be there, studying for exams and training for my next gymnastics competition -- but instead I was battling a limb-threatening methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infection. Commonly described as a "superbug," MRSA is a type of bacteria resistant to antibiotics typically used to treat staph infections. This makes these infections particularly difficult to treat. I experienced this first-hand, as I had eight surgeries in 2 weeks, spent one month in the hospital, three months recovering at home, and finally embarked on a six-month journey back to collegiate athletics.
Needless to say, it was the most unexpected and distressing experience of my life. Of course, as an athlete, I knew I would confront musculoskeletal injuries here and there; I had stress fractures in my back, tore my Achilles, and tore my ACL. However, I never imagined that an infection, which likely started from a simple and seemingly insignificant cut, would nearly end my athletic career and be the most difficult setback to overcome.
From MRSA Survivor to Infection Control Advocate
After battling MRSA as a college freshman, I became an advocate for infection prevention and control in the athletic setting. Through research as a Health and Human Biology major, I uncovered that athletes are at increased risk for infection in the collegiate athletic environment (not just skin and soft tissue infections due to MRSA, but also viral gastroenteritis, norovirus and influenza). I published a meta-analysis in a peer-reviewed journal that showed 13 percent of U.S. collegiate athletes carry MRSA on their skin without showing any sign of infection.1 This makes them 7.3 times more likely to develop a subsequent infection. With these findings in hand, I set out to inform those it affected most: athletes, athletic trainers, facility managers, and school administrators.
I visited multiple collegiate athletic programs to talk with athletes about MRSA in sports. I wanted to gauge their awareness of this largely unknown opponent and then educate them through various print and media materials. Overall, I recognized overt gaps in athletes’ knowledge of the pathogen and in the frequency at which they followed infection prevention recommendations. Yet, this wasn’t surprising to me.
As an athlete myself, I remember being so focused on training and competitions that I rarely gave any thought to how the “rips” on my hands and forearms placed me at risk for skin infections, let alone how clean the equipment was. I certainly wouldn’t interrupt my training to address these risks. And, with a mentality of toughness, air of invincibility, and tendency to play through injury, most other athletes won’t either. However, the reality is that any break in the skin – be it turf burn, mat burn or a small shaving nick – is large enough for the bacteria to enter the body and cause infection.
A Solution for Infection Prevention
Athletes will be exposed to MRSA (amongst other infectious diseases) at multiple points during their athletic participation. Therefore, every collegiate athletic facility needs to have solid, easy-to-follow infection prevention protocols in place that include procedures on disinfecting surfaces with products proven to kill MRSA, VRE, norovirus and influenza.
Fortunately, the PURELL® brand developed a science-based program, “The PURELL SOLUTION™ for Athletic Facilities,” which equips AT’s and facility managers with products for use on hands and surfaces. PURELL® Advanced Hand Sanitizer and PURELL® Brand HEALTHY SOAP® are formulated for hand sanitization and cleaning, and PURELL® Surface Disinfectant is formulated to kill bacteria and viruses on surfaces. The program includes guidance for strategic product placement and usage designed to contest the highest-risk areas for pathogen transmission. In fact, a recent study showed that after implementing this comprehensive program, there was a 100 percent reduction in MRSA and VRE and 95 percent reduction in other bacteria found on surfaces within the athletic environment.2
As a former student athlete and MRSA survivor, that statistic and this program is extremely exciting to me. Indeed, it was difficult for me to convince healthy college athletes that they needed to think seriously about their hygiene by education alone. However, the PURELL SOLUTION™ changes the risk environment. It makes it easy for athletes to consistently follow infection prevention recommendations, offered by organizations such as the CDC and Duke Infection Control Outreach Network.
If I could visit every collegiate athletic program in the nation to ask them to adopt this program, I would. I believe it has the potential to help other athletes – athletes facing the same risks I faced – avoid these preventable infections. While most schools have infection prevention protocols on file, they likely don’t have a comprehensive program complete with education, visual cues and appropriate products to accompany them. The PURELL SOLUTION™ satisfies these requirements and can be seamlessly integrated into a functional athletic training room.
What Can I Do?
Student Athletes: You do everything you can on the field to protect yourself from injury. Continue that off the field – in the locker room, athletic training room and weight room – by making good skin hygiene part of your regular routine and abiding by infection prevention recommendations. Ask your coach and athletic trainer what your school does to protect you from germs and infections.
Parents: Encourage your athlete to shower immediately after practice, avoid sharing personal items, and make sure they monitor their skin for signs of infection. These include, but are not limited to, redness, swelling, warmth, excessive pain, or pus-like drainage from or surrounding the site of cuts, scrapes, or other skin sores. Ask their coach what protocols they have in place for infection prevention and control.
Collegiate Athletic Trainers: Review your cleaning procedures. Educate your athletes about infection risks inherent to the athletic environment and be infection prevention champions in the athletic training room. Visit GOJO.com/Athletics to learn more. Email PURELLAthletics@GOJO.com to request a PURELL SOLUTION™ for Athletic Facility consultation about infection prevention at your athletic facility.
Collegiate Athletic Facility Managers and School Administrators: You invest heavily in your athletic facilities, but creating, maintaining and championing infection prevention and control initiatives is a direct investment in your student athletes’ health. Show that you care about your students by tackling pathogens in the athletic setting with the PURELL SOLUTION™. Visit GOJO.com/Athletics to learn more. Email PURELLAthletics@GOJO.com to request a PURELL SOLUTION™ for Athletic Facility consultation about infection prevention at your athletic facility.