The spread of the MRSA superbug strikes fear in many. But for an entrepreneurial few, it's prompting a burst of marketing for products and services that they maintain can foil the scary drug-resistant staph bacteria.
From disposable condom-like covers for stethoscopes to room-fogging that dispenses disinfectants originally created to fight bioterrorism, the MRSA fear factor is spurring an anti-MRSA industry.
Health officials who preach the low-cost, low-tech effectiveness of hand washing to curb the bacteria show some exasperation at these more elaborate approaches.
But with the public spotlight on MRSA, some companies clearly think their anti-microbial ship may have come in.
Take JYMRSA, LLC., a Robbinsdale start-up firm that sells the new disinfecting fog it says can kill MRSA.
"Before, nobody even listened to us," said the company's cofounder Joe Leintz.
Nobody, that is, until a series of alarm bells sounded this fall. First, a healthy high school football player in Virginia died from a staph infection.
Then the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that superbugs were spreading beyond hospitals into the community, killing 19,000 people around the country in 2005. The Minnesota Department of Health jumped in, urging athletes not to play contact sports if they had sores or rashes.
The bacteria is everywhere and it's not hard to kill in the environment -- which is why health officials push hand washing as a solution. But once inside the body, it can prove very difficult to treat because of its resistance to common antibiotics.
That's why some companies are pitching products aimed at better hand washing: automatic hand-washers as well as packs of antibacterial gel that can be worn around the neck.
Some experts fear this marketing blitz may spur consumers to buy products that don't work or aren't any better than hand washing or wiping surfaces with regular disinfectant.
"Rather than spend a lot of money on all these fancy things, the value is in going back to basics," said Jane Harper, an infection control specialist at the state Health Department.
Public facilities fearful
Some of the new products are aimed more at big public facilities than consumers.
Resurgent Health and Medical in Golden, Colo., introduced automatic hand-washing machines that health workers can stick their hands into. They start at $1,000.
On the less high-tech end, Microtek Medical Inc., now part of St. Paul-based Ecolab Inc., just introduced something called the StethoClean. It costs $9.96, is about as big as a stick of butter, and clips onto a stethoscope to dispense a plastic sheath that can be changed between patients.
Even the traditional hand-washing option is spurring its own business. At Ecolab, sales of anti-microbial hand soap, foam and gel have gone up double digits compared with last year, said Dave Keil, vice president of health care marketing. Ecolab is the country's biggest cleaning and sanitizing company.
For Joe Leintz, it was an unusual route to becoming a superbug entrepreneur.
About 2 1/2 years ago, Leintz was looking for something to treat mold he encounters in the building renovations done by his 30-year-old construction firm, Metro Building Companies.
JYMRSA is based on a formula developed by Sandia National Labs for the U.S. Army to protect against biological warfare. Leintz and his partners recruited the Institute for Environmental Assessment Inc. in Brooklyn Park to perform tests. The results, he said, showed the fogging disinfectant not only killed mold, but also E. coli, the virus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA.
JYMRSA is still a small part of his business. Leintz expects revenues of between $750,000 and $1 million in its first full year of marketing ending next March. But he's snagged a couple of big-name clients, including the Minnesota Twins. Last year, the company fogged locker rooms, bathrooms and carpets in the Metrodome.
Dr. Vijaya Eyunni, a Twins physician, is quick to point out that so far no Twins player has been afflicted. Still, every infected scratch is cultured to make sure it's not serious.
"From a business perspective, if someone that you're paying millions of dollars to is not playing for a few months, that's a big deal," Eyunni said.
Leintz is now pitching the fog disinfectant to schools, hospitals and any building with a locker room. It's non-toxic and non-corrosive, he said, and gets into cracks and crevices that simply wiping surfaces doesn't.
He charges between $2,500 and $5,000 to fog a school locker room and equipment room. He doesn't yet have a big hospital as a client, but says a hospital of 300,000 square feet would cost between $300,000 and $400,000 for a year-long contract to fog some areas weekly and others monthly or quarterly.
A handful of schools have signed on. Benilde-St. Margaret's, a Catholic school in St. Louis Park, has its locker room and some classrooms fogged three times a year. John Troesch, who oversees school maintenance, says he gets a special deal and pays less than $5,000 a year.
"We've never had any [MRSA cases] here, but I heard of a school two years ago that had something pretty bad," Troesche said. "I don't ever want it to happen here."
A dose of skepticism
Pat Schlievert, a microbiologist at the University of Minnesota and an expert on MRSA, is unconvinced.
JYMRSA bills its product as a compound of hydrogen peroxide and quaternary ammonium. Neither separately kills staph, said Schlievert.
"I'm going to view this with caution ... until [some research] has been published in a peer-reviewed place," Schlievert said.
Leintz says he doesn't dispute that people should wash their hands. And to deal with the return of staph, JYMRSA suggests periodic re-fogging.
Schlievert resists that notion. "I'm not anti-company. These things need to be developed," he added. "What we don't need now is for state legislators to get the idea that every school has to be fumigated every two weeks."
Schlievert and others point out that 40 percent of people already have staph in them and it's usually passed from person to person. Fog a locker room and as soon as the players come back in, so does the staph.
The best defense, they say, is still hand washing.
Chen May Yee • 612-673-7434