IT HAPPENED ON THE MOST ordinary of plays. Sixteen-year-old Boone Baker, playing wide receiver on the Austin High Maroons junior varsity last October 7, sprinted a quick five yards before turning and snagging a short pass from his quarterback sometime in the second half of a Friday night game against archrival Westlake High. Immediately after Boone caught the pass, he was tackled, hard, with his left shoulder crashing into the artificial turf of Chaparral Stadium. He remembers feeling a burning abrasion on his shoulder when he got up, but he shrugged it off and returned to the huddle.
As football games go, it was a mundane moment, with nothing to presage the medical nightmare that three months later would almost cost Boone his life and temporarily rob him of his mobility and his eyesight in one eye. On that seemingly insignificant play, this strapping, 176-pound, six-foot-two-inch teenager unknowingly joined the swelling ranks of athletes—from the National Football League to high school wrestlers—plagued by a new killer “superbug,” a pernicious staph infection that mimics the flu, races through the body with lightning-quick speed, and resists normal penicillin-based antibiotics. Known as MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus ), this bacterial infection first emerged in hospitals five years ago, attacking vulnerable postoperative patients with compromised immune systems. But in the past two years, MRSA has made its deadly presence known in the community at large, with athletes being a prime target, since the bacteria thrives in steamy settings like locker rooms and enters the body through nicks, abrasions, and cuts.
But it’s not just athletes who are affected; a Fort Worth woman died in February from an infection suspected to be MRSA, which she contracted during a routine pedicure. But athletes constitute a high-risk category in which MRSA continues to show up in clusters, with disastrous consequences. In 2003 MRSA claimed the life of Ricky Lannetti, who played football for Lycoming College, in Pennsylvania, and sidelined ten football players at a Connecticut college, hospitalizing two. That same year, the infection attacked five members of the St. Louis Rams. In Texas serious outbreaks have been reported among football teams in Denton County, Pasadena, and South Texas, where an alarming 81 cases were reported in 2004.
Health care professionals—from the National Athletic Trainers’ Association to the Texas Department of State Health Services—have begun campaigns to educate the public, and especially coaches and athletes, about how to prevent and detect the infection. “I almost don’t go to a meeting anymore that it is not a topic on the agenda,” says Allen Hardin, the co-director of sports medicine at the University of Texas, where the football team has gone to single-use disposable towels in its war to combat transmission of the infection. At the University Interscholastic League, which oversees public high school athletics, a medical advisory committee is developing a poster to place in locker rooms across the state, featuring pictures of an early-stage infection, which can look as harmless as a mosquito bite, and recommending tips for locker room cleanliness.
Neither the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention nor the state health department keeps statistics on how many cases have occurred in Texas or around the country, but one CDC study suggests that MRSA may occur in as many as 25 out of every 100,000 people. Anecdotal evidence is frightening: One Austin pediatric surgeon in a four-physician practice reported to me that she and her partners averaged ten surgeries per week to drain MRSA abscesses. Officials at Texas Children’s Hospital, in Houston, say that the incidences of MRSA have more than doubled since 2003, and the new bacteria now accounts for 77 percent of otherwise healthy patients with staph infections there. Since 2002, the hospital has lost six patients to MRSA, some of them infants. “This is not an athlete problem—it’s a people problem,” says Dr. Sheldon L. Kaplan, the chief of the hospital’s infectious-disease clinic.
As Boone Baker’s case illustrates, MRSA often starts out by disguising itself as an innocuous skin wound resembling a pimple or an ingrown hair. Immediately after the Westlake game, Boone showered and applied an antibiotic ointment to his shoulder burn and continued to do so all weekend. But after practice the following Monday, Boone noticed that the burn had become a purplish boil and showed it to a trainer, who directed him to see a doctor. The next day, his doctors lanced and drained the wound, cut out the pustule, took a culture, and identified the infection as MRSA. That called for a specific type of antibiotic, Septra, which, unlike penicillin-family drugs, can still knock out MRSA. Ten days later, Boone was cleared to return to football.
“I thought it was completely behind us,” says Missy Baker, Boone’s mom. When Boone fell ill with the flu this January, as did many other students at Austin High, the thought of a recurrence of MRSA, attacking his flu-weakened immune system, never entered her mind. Suffering nausea and a high fever, Boone lay on a couch for several days while Missy consulted his pediatrician’s nurse by phone. Certain that Boone’s lethargy was brought on by dehydration, Missy plied her son with Gatorades, but nothing about his condition made her panic.
Until Thursday, January 19. Early in the day, Boone complained of excruciating back pain. He rebounded, but soon the pain returned with scarier symptoms: fast and shallow breathing, neck pain, and a sudden inability to move his legs. Fearful that Boone had meningitis, Missy and her husband, Coalter, raced their son to an emergency room.
Life-threatening infections like Boone’s could be avoided with some basic health precautions. Yet a CDC study released in February about the Rams’ experience indicates that, even at the professional level, trainers have been slow to appreciate the risk of MRSA. On an average week, Rams players reported two to three “turf burns,” severe abrasions where the skin is rubbed raw by high-velocity contact with artificial turf. Most of the burns were left uncovered during subsequent play. Trainers who treated the wounds