B.J. Anderson has spent years educating physicians, coaches, parents and athletes in the wrestling community on the importance of preventing and reducing skin infections in the sport.
His efforts have even earned him a nickname: “The Mat Doc.”
Anderson, a University of Minnesota Boynton Health Service physician, was once the physician for the Gophers wrestling team and now works with Augsburg College’s wrestling team.
Anderson recently finished a 10-year study of herpes gladiatorum, or “mat herpes,” a skin infection in wrestlers that is spread by direct skin-to-skin contact, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.
Anderson recorded outbreaks, which included both original and recurrent infections, at an annual youth summer wrestling camp hosted at the University. As many as 300 mostly male wrestlers between the ages of 13 and 18 attend the camp each year.
Anderson presented the study for the first time last month at the Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy in San Francisco and plans to publish a paper on his research sometime next year.
According to Anderson’s research, 15 to 20 outbreaks occurred during each session during the 1990s. After he recorded 57 outbreaks in 2001, the camp director implemented mandatory antiviral medication for participants — Prophylactic valacyclovir — which is required to this day.
“This camp is extremely intense,” Anderson said, adding that stress is a factor that can spark outbreaks among infected wrestlers.
According to the study, the antiviral medication reduced primary and recurrent outbreaks by 84.2 percent as of this year.
“Statistics looked very good,” Anderson said. “Hopefully, people will use this in the future before going into wrestling camps.”
Anderson said herpes is just as prevalent in non-wrestling populations, but it may present itself in different forms such as cold sores.
He said male and female athletes involved in any contact sports, including football, hockey, martial arts and rugby are susceptible to infection.
“This is an all-sport issue,” Anderson said.
Gophers wrestlers are required to take antiviral medication before and throughout the wrestling season, said assistant athletics trainer Rich Schlotfeldt.
Schlotfeldt said Gophers football and wrestling locker rooms have antiseptic, antimicrobial soaps to help prevent more serious bacteria like Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, which can lead to serious complications.
He said the athletic community was in a panic over MRSA outbreaks a few years ago, but once he learned the bacterium is not resistant to soap, he knew hygiene awareness was essential.
“If athletes are washing themselves properly, then it’s not the dreaded skin-eating disease that everybody made it out to be,” Schlotfeldt said.
Hygiene is a much bigger issue among high school athletes because many high schoolers don’t shower immediately after gym classes or sports, Anderson said.
Treating open wounds and abrasions early on and making sure they are wrapped is another proactive step he said trainers and physicians can take.
The NCAA requires trainers or physicians to check wrestlers for any visible signs of skin infections before each match, which is also common among high school and youth wrestling leagues, Schlotfeldt said.
“The guys are pretty good about making sure [skin issues] get seen,” he said.
Gophers head wrestling coach J Robinson said constant education is the key to prevention and reduction of skin infections in the sport.
“Education is not a destination, it’s a continual process,” he said, “and they have to be educated as such.”