Paramedics an easy target for MRSA

U. WASHINGTON (US) — Firefighters and medics may be at higher risk for carrying methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) than the average person.

“Firefighters and paramedics are at the crossroads between the public and hospital environments,” says Marilyn Roberts, professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at the University of Washington.

“Their job includes administering first-response care to patients, many of whom are more likely to be MRSA carriers or have MRSA infections then the general population. This puts them at increased risk for MRSA infections.”

In the last 10 years, the number of hospital- and community-acquired MRSA infections—those often contracted in schools, public gyms, and in workplaces—has risen.

Because MRSA can be transmitted from surfaces to people and from person to person, the increase in incidence has led to concern for first responders, including police, firefighters, and emergency medical personnel.

Fire personnel interact with both hospital and community populations as part of their job and have the potential to be exposed to MRSA as part of their daily duties.

Roberts found MRSA in four percent of more than 1,000 samples collected from surfaces inside Snohomish County, Washington fire stations, medic and fire trucks, and outer protective gear. But in each of the nine areas sampled, at least one sample tested positive for MRSA, and both hospital- and community-acquired MRSA were found.

Roberts conducted the study after being contacted by firefighters who wondered if they were being exposed to MRSA on the job. “Firefighters and medics were part of an advisory board that helped us develop the study,” she says.

Firefighter and paramedic Kevin Fetter had questions about a new disinfection system, including: What was on the surfaces or being transmitted that might cause infection or illness?

As the wellness coordinator for Snohomish County Fire District 1, Fetter called labs all over the country asking for help in testing before connecting with Roberts at the University of Washington. The district is made up of 12 fire stations that field 13,000 emergency calls each year.

Fetter and colleagues knew that MRSA was being studied in hospital settings, but didn’t know how MRSA affected them. Except for a small study in Arizona, no one else had looked at this setting and firefighter exposure.

The research team found more than 20 percent of the fire personnel who volunteered to be tested carried MRSA and an additional 10 percent carried Staphylococcus aureus in their noses.

Normally, 25 to 35 percent of the general population carries S. aureus in the nose. Also, in studying the genetic characteristics of the different strains of bacteria, Roberts says MRSA strains on fire personnel were related to the environmental MRSA strains, suggesting transmission between personnel and the environmental surfaces.

Roberts looked at MRSA contamination in fire stations and determined which locations were most likely to be contaminated.

The study also was conducted to improve decontamination of the station and truck environmental surfaces and to use the information to develop and distribute educational materials on best practices for disinfection protocols.

Roberts says she hopes to expand the study to determine if the results from the initial study are representative of the larger firefighter population within Washington state and throughout the United States.

More news from University of Washington: