MRSA has its day in the sun

Researchers turn up evidence of antibiotic-resistant staph strain at the beach

CHICAGO — A sunburn and sand between the toes may not be all you take home from a day at the beach. An antibiotic-resistant strain of bacteria known as MRSA lurks in ocean water and perhaps in sand, Lisa Plano of the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine reported February 13 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

In a talk titled “What happens at the beach doesn’t always stay at the beach,” Plano reported on an epidemiological study of beachgoers. Of 1,303 adult bathers at a popular beach in south Florida, 37 percent came into contact with the usually harmless Staphylococcus aureus microbe in the ocean water. Each of the study participants waded into the ocean, dunked underwater three times and collected a sample of the surrounding seawater in a clean jug.

Researchers then analyzed the seawater samples to find out what bacteria hitched a ride. A small percentage of the S. aureus samples proved to be the particularly dangerous strain of the microbe MRSA, which plagues hospitals, prisons and locker rooms.

Preliminary evidence suggests that S. aureus is also present in the beach sand.

Follow-up interviews with study participants turned up no links between exposure and subsequent infections. “You shouldn’t fear the beach,” Plano says. “Go. Have fun. Embrace it.” To prevent “sharing your organisms” with other beachgoers and to protect yourself from the bacteria, Plano recommends showering with soap before and after a beach visit.

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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