Contagious boils spreading in western Alaska

Posted: Friday, April 06, 2001

BETHEL (AP) -- A contagious strain of boils is spreading across the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and other parts of western Alaska.

About 20 percent of patients at the Bethel hospital's emergency room are seeking help for skin infections, most of them boils, according to hospital officials, and the number is increasing.

''We see up to 40 or 50 boils a month,'' Annette Lauria, a nurse at the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. hospital in Bethel, told the Tundra Drums. She says the number of cases is increasing.

The pus-filled boils are painful, but they're virtually harmless when treated properly, health officials say.

The boils are caused by an infection of the hair follicle by the bacteria staphlococcus aureus, which can survive outside the body.

''Because the offending bacteria is present throughout our area, all of us are at risk for these type of skin infections when we get cuts or scrapes,'' said Dr. Daniel Berliner of Bethel.

The offending bug appears to be building resistance to antibiotics, health officials say.

''Something about this germ is either making it spread better, invade better once it spreads or producing a more severe disease once it invades,'' says J.R. Krevans, a physician and researcher in Bethel.

Typically, he said, well over 90 percent of the infecting bacteria are destroyed by common antibiotics, but in some villages 90 percent of infected people have resistant strains.

Steam baths, popular among Delta residents, are suspected as a major spot for the bacteria to spread, Berliner said, since the warm, wet wood in a steam bath is an idea place for the bacteria to grow.

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