Mary Raulerson had no idea a small sore that's not even visible inside her son's left ear would help cause such a panic in Columbia County.
Alex Raulerson is one of a dozen cases the school system reported as having confirmed cases of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA. Alex, 3, attends special needs pre-kindergarten at Blue Ridge Elementary School and was the only reported case at the school. He had been kept home before the diagnosis and has been back at the school only briefly since for a class photo, his mother said.
"Alex hasn't exposed anyone to anything," Mrs. Raulerson said.
Alex, who has trisomy developmental disorder from a chromosomal defect, has a somewhat compromised immune system and recurrent ear infections. Sometime after a tube was placed in the left ear in August, he had a couple of high fevers. In early October, a sore inside his ear that had been oozing was cultured and found to be MRSA, most likely the community-acquired kind that causes many skin infections but rarely anything more serious.
The child was placed on oral antibiotics and an antibiotic cream, which appear to have cleared up the infection. It is Alex's second bout with MRSA; the first time, over a year ago, the family thoroughly cleaned the house, removed the carpet, and Alex tested negative for the bacteria about two weeks later. They are repeating those steps and none of the other family members have it; nor do his caregivers.
"Look how much he's in contact with me," said Fran Gwinn, his early intervention teacher, with Alex on her lap. "And I don't have it."
Mrs. Raulerson said she decided to tell the school nurse at Blue Ridge Elementary when Alex came back briefly for picture days as a way of explaining why he had been kept out of school.
"I thought what I was saying was confidential," Mrs. Raulerson said. But the next thing she knew, the school system was announcing a number of cases at nine schools, including one at Blue Ridge.
Even without naming her son, Mrs. Raulerson said she was hurt by the hysterical reaction of some. A school bus driver warned the family, "You know they've got the MRSA going on at that school?" Mrs. Raulerson said. A neighbor told them she didn't want her granddaughter to go there. They got negative comments just trick-or-treating on Halloween.
And the rumors are getting worse, said Brent Raulerson, Alex's father.
"It's going around the middle school that a girl died from it," he said. Or that all of the special education kids have it.
"I think that's the worst thing that has hit us," Mrs. Raulerson said. "And that he's so contagious."
The school system has been getting it from both sides since the announcement, said deputy superintendent Sandra Carraway.
"From the medical community, we have heard that we've overreacted, that this is common, that we should not be giving so much attention to this," she said. "Then on the other side, we've heard from parents saying, 'Why have you not told us about this sooner? We should know, you should close your schools. You need to scour the entire building.' We just can't do enough on either side."
One parent called and threatened to keep their two girls out of school "until this is over with," Dr. Carraway said. "And I told them that it's not going to be over with. And are you not going to take them to Wal-Mart or to Target or out to dinner? This is everywhere."
Infectious disease physician Jack Austin of University Hospital said he has been seeing children with MRSA who attend Augusta area schools for the last couple of years.
"There is no need for panic here," Dr. Austin said. "There is need to certainly maintain appropriate respect for this organism but no need for panic and start pulling children out of the schools."
Mrs. Raulerson just wishes parents would focus on the ways to prevent the disease instead of panicking.
"Teach your kids to wash their hands," she said. But instead, she hears only fear.
"They're treating these kids like they have some kind of plague," Mrs. Raulerson said.
Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
MYTH VS. FACT
Common misconceptions about methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus.
Myth: It is a new disease that is causing an outbreak .
Fact: Doctors have known about community-acquired MRSA or CA-MRSA for the last decade. Physicians have been treating cases in children who attend area schools for the last several years . Aiken County schools, for instance, have seen 17 cases since August but have no current active cases.
Myth: The bacteria can't be treated with antibiotics.
Fact: MRSA is resistant to certain kinds of common antibiotics but responds to several other common ones.
Myth: Once you get MRSA, you can't get rid of it.
Fact: It is normal to have some staph germs on your skin. The antibiotic resistant ones can be eliminated.
Sources: Dr. Jack Austin, University Hospital, Aiken County schools