MRSA contained on Vinalhaven

Posted Jan. 29, 2010, at 10:07 p.m.

VINALHAVEN, Maine — Maine’s top public health official says a late-summer outbreak of Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, in this island community has run its course.

Dr. Dora Anne Mills of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention said earlier this week that the MRSA outbreak that started in July was contained primarily within the lobstering community on the island. While MRSA is always serious, she said, the cases on Vinalhaven were confined to skin rashes and minor infections and not life-threatening. About a dozen people were affected, she said.

Island resident and lobsterman Tobin Seawell, 40, said this week that a small pimple on his forearm spread rapidly into a nasty infection.

“I literally saw it happen before my eyes,” he recalled. After he popped the pustule, Seawell said, it took about two hours for his whole arm to become inflamed and tender.

“My whole arm turned red to the elbow,” he said. “It turned really hard; I couldn’t push in on the flesh.”

After seeking help at the island’s health center, Seawell was sent to the mainland for intravenous antibiotic treatment at Penobscot Bay Medical Center in Rockport.

MRSA is gaining notoriety as a severe, invasive infection that can affect internal systems such as the lungs and urinary tract. Especially when it affects patients with weakened immune systems in health care settings such as hospitals and nursing homes, MRSA is easily passed from person to person and can be deadly.

But as a skin infection in a close-knit but relatively healthy population such as the fishing community on Vinalhaven, Mills said, MRSA is nothing new. The state has seen numerous small-scale outbreaks of MRSA over the past decade or longer in school locker rooms and other settings where people have close contact and may share certain types of equipment, she said.

“These are pretty common types of outbreaks,” she said. “The bottom line is, this is an example of the importance of good hygiene.” The MRSA outbreak on Vinalhaven is believed to have started with one individual and spread person to person, Mills said, and is unlikely to have been associated with lobster bait, as some have suggested.

The Maine CDC worked closely with the Islands Medical Center on Vinalhaven to help the fishing community respond to the MRSA outbreak, including posting information on bulletin boards and in the island newspaper and sending fliers home in lobstermen’s paychecks.

Dinah Moyer, executive director of the Islands Medical Center, said people were reminded to wash their hands and shower frequently, to change their clothes and launder them daily, and not to share personal equipment like gloves.

“It was basic common-sense stuff,” she said. Moyer said the community responded appropriately. “People were aware of the problem, but there was no kind of panic,” she said.

“As far as I know, it’s died down now,” Moyer said Friday. “I don’t think we’ve seen any new cases in a few weeks.”

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