Fire Fighters, by nature of their contact with the public, are in constant danger of exposure to many infectious diseases. MRSA is a serious, potentially life-threatening infection, and has been recently noted to have jumped from a hospital-acquired (nosicomial) disease to a community-acquired disease. A New York Post article recently highlighted this disease’s increasing ability to spread in the community and the possibility of contracting the infection through intact skin.

Staphylococcus is a common bacteria typically found on the skin and in the nose of normal, healthy people. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that up to 30 percent of the population carries these bacteria at any given time without causing disease.

If disease occurs, it can be in many forms, including skin infections, bone infections, pneumonia, severe life-threatening bloodstream infections, and others. If these infections are resistant to treatment by antibiotics, they are then classified as MRSA and are very difficult to treat. Doctors at some clinics, such as the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center in Chelsea, are seeing one new case per week, compared with one every two months when the infection first appeared last year. In some cases, amputations and death result from the spread of this infection.

As reported in the New York Post, Dr. Brian Saltzman of Beth Israel, who has just completed a study of the spread of MRSA outside hospitals, said, “We are seeing very impressive, very large, very difficult-to-treat skin abscesses.” About 50 percent of infections are now resistant to some kind of antibiotic, as opposed to 10 percent a decade ago, according to several local infectious-disease specialists. There are now three antibiotics remaining that can attack MRSA: vancomysin, daptomycin and linezolid. But those antibiotics are beginning to lose their potency against the bug.

The primary concern for fire fighters is the switch from hospital-acquired to community-acquired infections. According to an Institute of Medicine report last year, 80,000 people die each year in the United States from hospital-acquired infections. The number of community-acquired infections is unknown. The danger of MRSA is that even casual contact with intact skin carries the risk of infection. Hand washing is the single most effective means of preventing the risk of spread of infection.

After reviewing this issue and recent events, IAFF General President Harold A. Schaitberger stated, “Following universal precautions with every patient contact, including hand washing, is very important – regardless of whether or not the patient’s disease status is known. What you can’t see may kill you.”

The IAFF Occupational Health and Safety Department is currently updating the web site with the latest information on infectious diseases. In addition to web site information, a new video on infectious diseases is underway that will outline the various diseases that are vaccine preventable and non-vaccine preventable. The video will stress the importance of vaccinations for our members (as stipulated in NFPA 1581 and 1582) -– keeping in mind that vaccines are a form of personal protective equipment. The IAFF will also provide guidance for grassroots efforts in obtaining presumptive legislation regarding infectious diseases -– similar to legislation that provides heart and lung benefits.