In a move thought to be a national first, the Minnesota State High School League halted competitions and practices for 8 days to stop a rash caused by a virus. Officials say a ban on skin-to-skin contact is the only option.
An outbreak of a skin rash among Minnesota high school wrestlers has led to the unprecedented statewide shutdown of the sport for eight days.
The Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) took the step Tuesday after 24 athletes from 10 teams were diagnosed with the rash, which is caused by the herpes virus. It is believed to be the first time in U.S. history that a high school sport has been halted on a statewide basis in the middle of the season.
The ban, which will extend through Feb. 6, means more than 7,500 wrestlers and 262 teams will not be allowed to compete or hold wrestling practices. Individuals will be able to do conditioning workouts, but no skin-on-skin contact is allowed because that's the only way the virus can spread.
The skin infection, herpes gladiatorum, is caused by the herpes simplex virus, the one responsible for cold sores. The wrestlers who contract the virus often get sores and blisters around the face and neck.
And while the infection can be treated with antiviral medications, those who are susceptible have recurring outbreaks at the site of the original infection throughout their lives.
In the rare cases when the infection occurs in the eye, it can lead to blindness, said Dr. B.J. Anderson, a member of the MSHSL sports medicine advisory committee. Though that's uncommon, it is the leading cause of blindness from infection.
The statewide shutdown will allow time for wrestlers to be diagnosed and treated before they return to competition, Anderson said.
Herpes simplex is not more common among wrestlers than any other people, according to Anderson. He said research shows that about 30 percent of high school boys carry the virus.
"It's a key point. People don't have an increased risk of getting herpes in this sport," Anderson said during a news conference at MSHSL headquarters in Brooklyn Center.
'Isolate and reduce'
Officials want to stop the outbreak before section tournaments, which begin Feb. 14 around the state and lead up to the state tournament at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul from Feb. 28 to March 3.
"Our goal is to be able to isolate and reduce [the infection] and to allow us to make sure those student-athletes that should be are cleared to wrestle in the section and have that chance to advance to state," MSHSL associate director Craig Perry said. "When we weighed everything and sat down as a staff and looked at what we thought was in the best interests of student-athletes, an eight-day shutdown gave us a greater chance to ensure that we had the right kids qualifying for sections and state. That's what it was all about; it was in the best interest of the student-athletes."
A spokesperson for the National Federation of State High School Associations said such a shutdown has never before occurred.
An outbreak of herpes gladiatorum occurred in Minnesota in 1999, affecting 60 wrestlers and causing several individuals to be disqualified from the state tournament.
Applauded and criticized
Reaction from wrestling coaches Tuesday was mixed, with some agreeing with the decision and others arguing that it was an overreaction to a small problem.
"This is a bold and positive step, shutting down the state," said Owatonna coach Scot Davis, who recorded his 800th career victory last weekend, which is more than any other coach in the nation. "How do you know who has really got it? You need to take that waiting period. ... We don't want to lose matches, but for the welfare of student-athletes this is a bold move and a great effort to protect kids."
Simley High coach Will Short, whose team was shut down for eight days two years ago because of a herpes gladiatorum outbreak, said the MSHSL went too far.
"Twenty-four confirmed cases, and you're shutting down wrestling? Come on," he said. "It's a very unfair situation right now. We are a completely clean and healthy program at Simley High School. We do not have a case of herpes. We've taken every precaution that a team and coaches can take."
Earlier this season, viral outbreaks caused teams from Kasson-Mantorville and Scott West to be suspended for a similar period of time. Both competed at the Clash tournament in Rochester on Dec. 29 and 30, and Anderson said the latest outbreak appears to have begun there.
Clash chairman Steve Patton said officials at that event did a through job of checking wrestlers for skin diseases.
"The wrestling officials inspect every wrestler in their underwear from head to toe, and if there's anything remotely questionable they get passed over to the Mayo Clinic dermatologists, who thoroughly inspect them," Patton said. "If there's any question whatsoever, they're out of the tournament. There's no appeal process. A number of kids were excused from the tournament for that reason."
Tuesday's announcement came as a surprise. Coaches and athletic directors were notified via e-mail at mid-morning, and the MSHSL posted a statement on its website (www.mshsl.org) soon after.
On the Internet, wrestling chat rooms were ablaze with the news. At www.theguillotine.com, more than 180 messages had been posted and viewed by more than 11,000 users within three hours of the announcement. By Tuesday evening, more than 22,000 page views had been made.
Staff writers Josephine Marcotty and Roman Augustoviz contributed to this report.