Germy Gyms: Hidden risks spur new guidelines to keep young athletes safe

TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - Washburn Rural High School athletic director Penny Lane knows firsthand what can be lurking in the gym.

"Anytime you have a lot of people in the same area, the possibility exits for things to happen," she said.

In 2015, a WRHS student had a confirmed case of MRSA, a potentially serious bacterial infection, often resistant to antibiotics. Several other area schools have battled cases recently, too.

Dr. Ryan Tomlins of Cotton O'Neil Orthopedic and Sports Medicine says most people will not have any trouble with MRSA if they catch it early and get treated, but, if it's not, it can cause big complications.

"If it is not treated appropriately, maybe misdiagnosed or not reported by the student-athlete or coaches or anyone else around that student-athlete, it can start to form abscesses; it can even get in the blood stream and start to cause organ damage and a very severe illness," he said.

The risk is greatest in sports with skin-to-skin contact, like wrestling, but anyone who enters a gym could be at risk. It's estimated that 10 to 15 percent of all injuries that sideline college-aged athletes are due to sport-related skin infections.

"We live around bacteria all the time," Tomlins said.

To illustrate how true that is, students in Dr. Andrew Herbig's Washburn University biology classes sampled surfaces all over the campus rec center, from exercise balls and machines, to door handles and the rock climbing wall. As they collected swabs, staff kept up their regular protocol of sanitizing machines after each use.

When students studied their samples two weeks later, they wrote a lot of 'zeros' in their tally of growths indicating possible dangerous staph strains.

"I think that's good news overall for the rec center and for those people that use it," Herbig said. "They're doing a very good job with their disinfecting."

The American Academy of Pediatrics is taking the issue seriously. Last month, it published a report on infectious diseases associated with organized sports, along with guidelines for controlling outbreaks.

It recommends teaching athletes personal hygiene, like not sharing towels, mouth guards, combs or water bottles; showering after practice; and regularly washing workout clothes. The guidelines also call on schools to establish a cleaning plan for sporting equipment.

"The prevention and treatment is so multi-modal," Tomlins said. "It involves parents, the athletes, our athletic trainers, physicians, mid-levels, even athletic directors, custodians."

Watching for skin rashes and sores also is important. The Kansas State High School Activities Association takes that a step further for wrestlers, keeping athletes with skin infections out of action with medical clearance required to return.

"The athletes don't like that because they want to play and get back to sport, but really to prevent an outbreak, we gotta be really, really careful," Tomlins said.

Daily skin checks for wrestlers are just one step Washburn Rural has taken since its MRSA case. Any shoes now step thru sanitizer before stepping on the mats; the whole wrestling room is fogged daily, and the mats sanitized twice more; plus, they installed special ionizers in the wrestling room, along with the weight room and football field house.

"(The ionizer) cleans the air with a 99 percent-plus killing of bacteria and viruses in that particular space," Lane said.

In addition, Lane said WRHS has doubled-down on training for custodial staff and education for students. Their game plan is a team effort to defeat the risks.

"(It's) those general preventative kinds of things that we try to teach and emphasize in our kids to keep themselves and everybody else around them safe," Lane said.