A deadly staph infection is making its way through Illinois' prison and health care systems. From July 1, 2007 to June 30, 2008, 998 out of about 45,000 Illinois prisoners were diagnosed with the disease. This number doesn't include inmates in county and city jails who may be carrying the pathogen.
A deadly staph infection is making its way through Illinois' prison and health care systems.
The drug-resistant infection known as MRSA, which stands for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, can prove difficult to treat. It spreads through physical contact.
From July 1, 2007 to June 30, 2008, 998 out of about 45,000 Illinois prisoners were diagnosed with the disease. This number doesn't include inmates in county and city jails who may be carrying the pathogen.
The Illinois Department of Corrections follows Illinois Department of Public Health guidelines for preventing the spread of MRSA, essentially a regiment of hand-washing and good hygiene, according to IDOC spokesman Derek Schnapp.
Schnapp said the constant turnover of the prison population makes preventing MRSA even more difficult.
"You've got to look at who we are dealing with and the type of population we are dealing with," Schnapp said. "We have thousands of inmates going in and out of our system continually."
Sen. Christine Radogno and Rep. Patti Bellock are working to ensure MRSA, pronounced Mer-sa, doesn't become more of a problem than it already is. They've proposed legislation – Senate Bill 105 and House Bill 185 – that would establish guidelines for educating state workers, prison inmates and others about how to protect themselves from a MRSA infection. They also want state residential facilities to issue regular reports about any MRSA outbreaks.
Radogno said she has recently learned about how MRSA "is really becoming quite epidemic, how difficult it is to treat, how easily it is transmitted and also how easily it can be prevented."
Bellock says she wants to better educate this ever-changing population as well as those who guard them.
"This tightens up hand hygiene and different personal hygiene," said Bellock, a Hinsdale Republican. However, "it is not anywhere near where we wanted to get to in prevention of MRSA."
Bellock and Radogno, a Lemont Republican and Senate minority leader, earlier had hoped to take additional steps to prevent MRSA.
At one point, their proposal called for active screening of prisoners and residents of other state facilities. But they dropped that idea because of the state's economic troubles.
"The testing is a little more controversial, it is costly and you are not dealing with a sick population," Radogno said. "In general, prisoners are not sick the way people are in the hospital, so the reasoning behind the testing is a little bit weaker."
Because of their concessions, Bellock and Radogno think their legislation has a good chance of passing the General Assembly and reaching the governor's desk.
Bellock's HB 185 passed in the House 114-0 and is now awaiting action in the Senate. Radogno's SB 105 passed in the Senate unanimously and is currently waiting for the House to act on it. For any bill to become law, it has to pass in both chambers and get signed by the governor.
The largest state workers' union is concerned about members' risk of contracting MRSA because of prison guards' close contact with inmates.
Anders Lindall, spokesman for Council 31 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, agrees with Bellock that the legislation is not comprehensive enough.
"It's a good step to address MRSA in state prisons and residential facilities, but more needs to be done," said Lindall. "We continue to urge state agencies to ensure regular screening, aggressive prevention and reporting of all MRSA infections."
Andrew Thomason can be reached at (217) 782-6882 or firstname.lastname@example.org.