In the movie "Jaws," actor Roy Scheider was able to get the better of a monster, a killer great white shark. But in real life, the macho actor succumbed to an entirely different kind of monster after he was weakened by cancer.
The National Football League spends millions on revamping its 32 teams' training facilities, installing state-of-the art hygienic safeguards and educating its coaches, trainers, and doctors about maintaining proper hygiene in training. And still its players are often felled by the same monster that killed Scheider.
Hospitals create educational campaigns, plaster their walls with informational posters and caveats, and encourage their staffs to keep equipment sterilized and practice good cleaning habits. Yet the monster remains one of the top four post-operative complications.
Responsible for 18,650 deaths nationwide a year—150 percent as many deaths as caused by AIDS—the monster is microscopic, extremely aggressive, and damned difficult to kill. The monster is a microbe called Staphylococcus.
Commonly referred to as "staph," this bacterium infects some 500,000 patients in American hospitals each year. The most harmful and most common staph germ is Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus). Once contracted through an open wound, it can lead to toxic shock and death.
Why is this important to you, the conscientious street cop who wears gloves, routinely washes his hands, and keeps a bottle of Purell in his or her shirt pocket on patrol?
Because staph is not just out on the street with the homeless and the hypes. The equipment we use in defensive tactics training and even our sparring partners can be the gateway to a staph infection.
Contaminated gym gear such as gloves and face protectors may be passed from one student to the next. Grapplers may find themselves in skin-to-skin contact with one another, resulting in the bacteria being passed through an open cut or abrasion. And the seemingly unused towel lying atop a folding chair could be a transmission device for anyone with an open wound who uses it or even sits on that chair.
Think we're being alarmist? Think again. Staph infections have hit a number of law enforcement training facilities in recent years. Consider the following:
A staph outbreak at a Texas police academy found 43 of the 110 cadets suffering soft-tissue infections, with two incurring bloodstream infections.
And that's not an isolated incident. In the winter of 2006, the Delaware State Police Training Academy found itself doing battle with Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, the dreaded MRSA. In the twentieth week of its 22-week course, two new police officers were diagnosed with the infection. The state's health department was called in to advise on the cleanup. And officers were moved out of their on-site accommodations and had to commute from home for the remaining two weeks of the program to minimize exposure.
Last January, a Prince George's County, Md., class of cadets was forced to go on leave for two weeks after nine recruits and three trainers were reported to have staph infections.
In one academy case, responsibility for a staph break-out was attributed to a "carrier" recruit who blamed his abstinence from showering on an allergy to soap. His ongoing physical contact with fellow recruits saw the bacteria spread like wild fire.
Neil Pascoe works for the Texas Department of State Health Services, Infectious Disease Control Unit. Called upon to look at the Texas academy outbreak, Pascoe became part of an investigation team seeking to address the infections and prevent their recurrence.
"We identified a number of areas of concern," Pascoe says. "But the major one was the initiation of defensive tactics and countermeasures, active physical contact between the recruits and not the training staff. It was also coed.
"A week after the initiation of these defense tactics saw the abrupt start of this outbreak. There was a single outbreak with over 20 cases. And all were MRSA," Pascoe adds.
Pascoe says that as the investigation progressed, the implications of the infection were found to be more far-reaching than first suspected.
"When we came on the scene, there was ongoing transmission," Pascoe notes. "The problem was that the training class that had initially been infected had ended and a new training class had started. One might hope that with the graduation of the first class that the problem would have ended. But that was not the case. The next academy class had infections as well."
And Pascoe's team found that infections weren't just confined to the affected department's personnel. "Other training classes were being held simultaneously with the first recruit training class. A visiting law enforcement officer became infected. This was bad enough, but then he took the infection home and shared it with his wife. It took months to resolve the contamination."