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MRSA study of fire station shows the deadly bacteria is everywhere

UW / Marc Beaudreau
Firefighters and medics may be at higher risk for carrying methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) than the average person, according to results from a UW study.

The drug-resistant strain of staph infection MRSA is known to be a problem for many hospitals.  A pioneering study from the University of Washington shows that it's also resilient enough to spread from medic units all the way into the living quarters of firefighters. 

UW occupational health professor Marilyn Roberts tested for the presence of MRSA on surfaces throughout Mariner station in Snohomish County Fire District 1.  She says they found it on a little over four percent of the surfaces tested.  But what was surprising was that the infection was present not only inside aid cars where patients ride – but also on kitchen counters inside the fire station. 

The study emphasizes this doesn't mean equipment or employees are a danger to patients.  But it has led to better disinfection procedures – both in Snohomish county fire stations and elsewhere.  Roberts says firefighters and paramedics need to protect themselves and each other by more vigorous hand scrubbing and equipment cleaning. 

"Firefighters and paramedics are at the crossroads between the public and hospital environments," said Roberts. "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."

The Herald of Everett reports the idea for the study came from one curious and persistent individual.  Firefighter and paramedic Kevin Fetter contacted professor Roberts after searching in vein for information on the prevalence of MRSA in ambulances and medic units.

The point of the study was to document the importance of disinfection procedures and improve them where possible, Fetter said. "You can be a carrier and not even know it."

The study is thought to be one of the most comprehensive ever conducted among firefighters anywhere.  The UW is now expanding the study and sharing the findings nationwide.