Staph deaths: Now may be a good time to clean keyboards

US student dies from drug-resistant bacteria strain.

Just days after a Virginia high school senior infected with a drug-resistant strain of bacteria died last week, an e-mail circulated to all the principals and custodial staff of the 11,000-student Bedford County Public School District from Victor Gosnell, the district's director of technology. The e-mail included a reminder: It's OK to lightly spray or wipe a keyboard and mouse.

As long as liquid isn't dripping into the spaces around the keys, "you are not going hurt anything," said Gosnell. The county closed its schools for a day for cleaning after the student was diagnosed with MRSA, which is short for methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus -- a so-called superbug.

If a keyboard breaks because of a cleaning, that's OK as well, said Gosnell. "We would rather replace one or two" keyboards instead of "have them ignore the keyboards and mice because they are electronic equipment and are afraid to put anything on them," he said. The district has 3,500 PCs.

The Bedford County school district is doing many other things, including instructing students and staff on proper hand-washing techniques and buying antimicrobial hand sanitizers "in huge quantity," with hand pumps on every teacher's desk and at entrances to cafeterias, said Gosnell.

A report this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association sharpened attention on this issue, after finding that MRSA caused nearly 19,000 deaths and some 94,000 infections in 2005. MRSA has been an issue for hospitals and nursing homes for some time, and it's now getting attention in schools. The increase in MRSA has also given rise to washable keyboards and equipment with antimicrobial nanocoating.

Mary Beth Minyard, a research scientist at Southern Research Institute in Birmingham, Ala., is studying MRSA and has developed the habit of wiping her desk and keyboard. "I clean mine once a week -- of course, I'm a microbiologist."

Minyard's keyboard is for her own use, but she said that if she worked in an environment where keyboards use changed from shift to shift, "I would wipe it down anytime I used it if I was going in behind someone."

There has not been a new class of antimicrobials in over 30 years, said Minyard, who is involved in research to develop new drugs. She and her fellow researchers have been testing a natural product, birch bark, which contains betulinic acid and is showing potential as a bug fighter, she said.

People who may be susceptible to MRSA infections may have weakened immune systems or cuts and sores, and most of the problems have cropped up with the elderly and children. But an employee could infect someone at home, a sick child or spouse. "The No. 1 thing that I advise people to do is to be very vigilant in hand washing," said Minyard.

For cleaning, anything with bleach or alcohol will kill MRSA, as will household disinfectants, said Minyard.

Frequency of cleaning depends on use, said Betsy McCaughey, who heads the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths in New York. "MRSA can live on objects for up to 90 days. So assume, if it hasn't been cleaned, it should be."

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