Virulent skin germ grates on Maine lobstering isle

October 6, 2010 By DAVID SHARP , Associated Press Writer
This April 16, 1997 file photo shows a lobster boat heading out of Vinalhaven Harbor, in Vinalhaven, Maine. Over the past two summers, more than 30 people on Vinalhaven have come down with painful and persistent skin infections that required repeated treatments with intravenous antibiotics for some of the victims. (AP Photo/Pat Wellenbach, File)

(AP) -- A strain of a drug-resistant skin disease that has afflicted sports teams, prisons and military units is now proving a persistent pest among lobstermen and their families on a Maine island.

Over the past two summers, more than 30 people on Vinalhaven have come down with painful and persistent that required repeated treatments with for some of the victims - but medical authorities say lobster lovers need not worry.

There's no indication that the germ is linked to lobsters, and boiling or steaming them would kill any bacteria that infected fishermen who handle them might leave behind, said Dr. Stephen Sears, Maine state epidemiologist.

The working theory is that , also known as MRSA, moves easily among lobstermen because their work - hauling traps, cutting bait, handling lobsters - causes plenty of scraped knuckles, pinched fingers, and small cuts and nicks, giving MRSA a foothold, Sears said.

"They really do have a lot of small traumas to their hands," Sears said. "That's just the nature of dealing with the ocean, the traps, the lobsters, the bait fish, a variety of things."

No deaths have been associated with the outbreak, but lobstermen and others have sought treatment at the island medical center. Some have been treated multiple times.

Landon Morton, a lobster fisherman, has battled four or five times in the past year and a half since first coming down with MRSA while working on one of the town's docks. Just a few weeks ago, he began his latest bout - and his 18-month-old daughter has it, as well.

Morton said there's no mistaking it for a run-of-the-mill skin rash, because it's painful.

"It starts with a little red sore," he said. "Within a couple of hours it swells and turns really red. The first time I had it, about half of my leg was swollen and red. It's nasty."

Hospitals have been dealing with infections caused by the "superbug" for 30 years, said Nicole Coffin of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Community-acquired MRSA, the strain that's making the rounds in Vinalhaven, tends just to cause skin lesions, Coffin said. Left untreated, however, they, too, can become deadly.

Previous instances of community-acquired MRSA have involved prisons, military recruits and sports teams, Coffin said. Perhaps the best-known case involved the St. Louis Rams in 2003, when the CDC was called in to investigate a cluster caused by skin abrasions and locker room contamination.

MRSA is carried on human skin and can be transferred to others through towels, gloves or other shared items. But it's a bit of a medical mystery how MRSA arrived on the 1,200-resident island in Penobscot Bay.

Some islanders believe it started with workers on one of the wharves. Some wonder whether the staph is in the water. Others wonder whether it somehow originated with the herring bait used by lobstermen.

All of those scenarios - and the chance of pinning down the culprit - seem unlikely. MRSA is not carried by seafood, so that rules out herring bait and the lobsters themselves, Sears said. And while MRSA has been documented in sea water and on beaches, it doesn't survive in those environments in concentrations necessary to cause human infection, he said.

To cut down on MRSA infections, people dealing with the infections on Vinalhaven are following guidelines recommended by the CDC: frequent hand-washing, use of disinfectants, washing clothes in hot water and setting the dryer on hot.

Morton said he always had good hygiene. But these days he takes multiple showers daily, washes his hands frequently and even changes clothes several times a day. He keeps disinfectant wipes close at hand.

"Some people will call it a little bit of a phobia, but it's to the point where I'm careful about everything I touch," Morton said. "I'm very paranoid about keeping things clean."


Related Stories

Recommended for you

Listeria infection causes early pregnancy loss in primates

February 21, 2017

Researchers in Wisconsin have discovered how Listeria monocytogenes, a common foodborne pathogen, travels through the mother's body to fatally attack the placenta and fetus during early pregnancy in a macaque monkey.

Listeria may be serious miscarriage threat early in pregnancy

February 21, 2017

Listeria, a common food-borne bacterium, may pose a greater risk of miscarriage in the early stages of pregnancy than appreciated, according to researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine ...

Ebola linked to habitat destruction

February 20, 2017

A Massey University veterinary scientist has co-authored research suggesting that Ebola virus emergence is linked to the clearing of animal habitat through deforestation in West and Central Africa.

New study determines how long Zika remains in body fluids

February 20, 2017

A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine provides evidence that the Zika virus particles remain longer in blood than in urine and some other body fluids. This information suggests that blood serum may be the ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.