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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, confronting human rights abuses by the Catholic Church in Chile.

But first, schools in Bedford County, Virginia, were shutdown this week after a drug-resistant strain of staph bacteria. It killed a 17-year-old student. The bacteria known as MRSA is reportedly spreading rapidly.

A study released this week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that patients in hospitals and nursing homes are contracting MRSA, in what one health official describe as an astounding rate. In 2005 alone, 94,000 Americans contracted serious or invasive staph infections - 19,000 of them died.

Dr. Carlene Muto is the medical director for Infection Control at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. She joined us just before she joins her plane at Reagan National Airport.

Dr. Muto, thanks so much for being with us.

Dr. CARLENE MUTO (Director, Infection Control, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Presbyterian): You're very welcome.

SIMON: Schools have been the focus this week, but as I understand it 85 percent of these infections can actually be traced to, I guess, what you'd call health-care settings - hospitals, clinics, doctor's offices. For those people who are going to be in a hospital or a doctor's office over the next few days or weeks, is there anything they can do to protect themselves?

Dr. MUTO: Well, surely. The hands of the health-care workers should always be cleaned before there is any interaction with the patient, and the equipment that's being used on the patient should also be cleaned.

SIMON: It's that simple?

Dr. MUTO: No. There's a lot more to it. The best solution is to identify the people who have the MRSA, and the only way that that can be readily accomplished in health care settings is to actually screen for it in patients who don't have obvious infection. And once we know everyone who has it, we can do extra things. And those things would include barrier precautions like gowns and gloves and masks to be sure that we're not carrying that organism to the next patient room.

SIMON: Is the problem sometimes those long, white coats that doctors wear, for that matter even their ties?

Dr. MUTO: It is. You'll find that in Europe, they've just disbanded the white coats and the ties, too, have been shown to be contaminated and can easily come into contact with the patient. I never wear my white coat into a patient room that has a multi-drug resistant organism because, again, I will be wearing that coat to other places, including lunch. And I wouldn't want to take the risk of passing it to another patient or even to a family member.

SIMON: We have an outbreak also among, I guess, high school athletes. What should teams be doing differently?

Dr. MUTO: It's not as easy to come up with a solution in the community because it's not as well of a controlled environment. But clearly what we can tell the kids is to make sure that their hygiene in impeccable - so showers, clean your hands, don't share things like towels or equipment. We had an outbreak in one of our football teams in one of our colleges where they were shaving their legs with the same razors, and they all ended up with MRSA. And if they do have an abscess or an infection that it should be covered, clean and dry.

SIMON: Now, as I understand it, that these invasive infections usually don't occur until weeks or even months after the MRSA strain is contracted. So are there any signs to watch out for in those weeks or months you get before the onset?

Dr. MUTO: The truth of it is there's nothing about a colonized patient that would help you know that they're colonized, which is why we actually have to do the surveillance, the screening and look for it. And that usually means like a cotton-tipped swab to the nose to look for the organism in culture.

SIMON: I have to ask in this day and age when you have so many Americans who routinely swabbing antibacterial clear gel on their hands, several times a day often, is this killing the bacteria at the cost of making the bacteria mutate and become even more affective?

Dr. MUTO: That's not a concern at all. So what we're using is an alcohol-based sanitizer, and the kill is more than 99 percent and it's an immediate kill. So this is actually more effective than just routine hand washing because to get the effective kill with hand washing you actually have to clean your hands for 15 seconds, and most people don't perform hands hygiene with soap and water correctly.

SIMON: Dr. Carlene Muto, medical director for Infection Control at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Thanks very much for being with us.

Dr. MUTO: You're very welcome.

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