TAMPA — Professional athletes get plenty of attention when they're sacked by a “superbug” like MRSA.
But that high-profile scrutiny overlooks a grosser reality: The creepy, dangerous, antibiotic-resistant bacteria that has sickened three members of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers football team is lurking and infecting people in the community and in health care settings every day.
A third of all people carry staph bacteria in their nose at any given time, and two in every 100 are keepers of MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant strain of staph, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data show.
It gets serious when the bacteria use a cut or wound to get beneath the skin or invade via openings such as the mouth.
“MRSA has always been the alpha predator for people with cuts and rashes,” said Doug Holt, director of the division of infectious disease at University of South Florida Health.
The Journal of the American Medical Association last month reported that 16,560 of the more than 80,000 reported cases of MRSA infections in the United States in 2011 were contracted out and about in the community.
The rest were in hospitals and in health care facilities such as nursing homes, the journal reported.
The initial symptoms of MRSA often are mistakenly thought to be the result of a spider bite, or are undertreated with drugs that would work on a less-potent staph infection, Holt said.
MRSA's tolerance to several antibiotics increases the time it takes to get it under control and the likelihood of reoccurence, as seen in the ongoing treatment of two Bucs players, who were initially diagnosed with the infection in August.
One, Carl Nicks, underwent surgery for his infection this week, while kicker Lawrence Tynes is so sick that he is out for the season. And a third player, rookie Johnthan Banks, started treatment for MRSA last week.
The likeliest settings for infection involve crowds, skin-to-skin contact and shared equipment, the CDC says.
Think college dorms and day care centers, health care facilities, gyms and any playing field where sweaty athletes are in contact with each other and likely to get cuts and wounds.
Locker rooms — from the high school level to the NFL — are natural breeding grounds for staph bacteria, said Barbara Morris, director of the USF SMART athletic training program.
Sweaty uniforms and towels left in a pile allow bacteria to fester and increase the risk for athletes with fresh scrapes and cuts.
“You can smell the stench … this stuff can't sit in the lockers dirty,” said Morris, whose program provides trainers for many area high schools.
“It will run like wildfire,” she said.
Though no official numbers are kept, high school trainers regularly encounter athletes with staph infections, Morris said.
And the NFL is no stranger to this situation. In 2009, the league reported 33 cases of MRSA over a two-year period.
High school programs are just as concerned about this health risk as the pros, said Lanness Robinson, athletic director for Hillsborough County Public Schools.
High school wrestling teams are most attentive to staph, MRSA and the risks for other infections, such as ringworm, Robinson said.
Mats are disinfected daily, and at wrestling meets officials conduct a visual skin check to ensure that the athletes do not have suspicious marks or cuts on their skin.
“Parents, they need to pay attention to their athletes similar to the wrestling officials,” Robinson said.
“Make no assumption anything is normal,” he said.
“See any rash or noticeable cuts, be mindful of it and take care of it,” Robinson said.
MRSA can travel between people, and staph bacteria can remain on a surface for hours or days if it's wet.
Holt said it's so hard to pinpoint the source of a community-acquired infection because the bacteria often are living on a person's skin long before infection takes place.
Though public awareness of MRSA appears to be on the rise, overall cases are decreasing, according to the recent JAMA study.
More than 30,000 fewer cases were reported in 2011 than in 2005.
The drop, however, was much more significant in health care settings, the study showed.
That's because national campaigns to address hospital-associated MRSA have created a methodical, deliberate protocol for fighting infection, said Brent Laartz, infectious disease specialist and physician at Clearwater's Morton Plant Mease Hospital.
For example, hospitals provide special soaps to patients to shower with the night before an elective surgery.
At Morton Plant Mease, all elective surgery patients also get a nasal swab test for staph before the procedure.
And any time a patient leaves Morton Plant Mease, housekeeping conducts what is called a “terminal” clean of a room, Laartz said.
Mattresses, trays, counters and other surfaces are sprayed with an ammonia or chlorine-type product for 10 minutes — the optimum “kill time” — before they are wiped down.
These extreme cleans may be unrealistic outside a hospital setting, but common sense disinfecting can help reduce risks, Laartz said.
It's helpful to have alcohol-based wipes or sanitizer on hand.
But if water is available, washing with soap is a far better way to rinse dirt and bacteria off the skin, he said.
Parents of youth athletes should wash uniforms several times a week, Morris said.
Here in Florida, hockey parents are famous for tossing stinky pads into chlorine-drenched swimming pools to kill bacteria.
Robinson said that the school custodial crews pay extra attention to areas where the special stench of bacteria is noticeable, such as gyms and locker rooms.
Janitorial crews clean Hillsborough high school locker rooms daily, he said.
“There's obviously a lot more bleach used in a locker room cleaning than in the rest of the school,” Robinson said.