Skin disease suspends Greene County wrestling season

Senior Night canceled by outbreak of mat herpes


When a group of Greene County athletes entered her office last week, high school nurse Ann Hicks knew something was amiss.

By Monday, an outbreak of the highly contagious herpes gladiatorum — also known as mat herpes — officially forced the suspension of the school’s wrestling season.

Hicks said the skin disease, spread strictly by skin-to-skin contact, has been contracted by roughly 10 students, but has been contained to the wrestling program.

The disease spread during winter break practices and forced the team to suspend all wrestling activities through Jan. 14.

The Rams withdrew from a Jan. 5 tournament at North Polk and had to postpone Senior Night celebrations scheduled for today, Jan. 11.

The wrestlers have been quarantined since Jan. 3, when the school district sent out a mass email announcing the cancelation of all practices and competitions.

No reason was given.

The athletic department took more drastic measures Monday, sending out an additional email at 2:51 p.m. announcing a further suspension of the wrestling season, but referring only to a “continued skin infection,” not herpes.

“We apologize to both our student athletes and our opponents for this unfortunate situation,” the email read.

Herpes gladiatorum is a skin infection caused by the herpes simplex virus type 1, which is strictly spread by skin-to-skin contact.

Symptoms include a raised rash accompanied by blisters (lesions) usually on the face, head or neck. Other symptoms include fever, sore throat and swollen lymph nodes. The herpes lesions can often take two weeks to fully heal, which explains the 11-day suspension.  

The wrestlers are being treated by Dr. James Gerdes of McFarland Clinic. Gerdes, who has two sons on the team, senior Cayden and freshman Jackson, could not be reached for comment.

Greene County High School activities director Mitch Moore assured The Jefferson Herald they have, in fact, as an athletic department, warned other school districts of their outbreak, though they can’t pinpoint where it originated.

“It’s mat herpes that’s been identified by multiple doctors. It was most likely a case that one guy got it and it spread throughout the program,” Moore said. “We’ve sent out to multiple ADs that we have a skin disease that’s infiltrated our program. We haven’t identified where it’s come from yet.”

It was a simple decision to suspend the season knowing what the disease can do, said Greene County wrestling coach Mark Sawhill.

“We’ve got some skin problems and I do not want it spread to other teams. That’s all I have to say about it,” he said.

In an interview Friday on local radio, Sawhill expressed concerns about an opposing wrestler at a December tournament who had an open sore on his forehead. He hinted at his team possibly contracting the disease during that tournament.

Though it may be the case, Iowa High School Athletic Association director of officials and wrestling director Lewie Curtis said there is no way of determining or handing out punishment for a team spreading a disease.

Because it’s such a contagious infection that can be transmitted so easily, it’s too dicey to heap infractions on any particular school.

An inquiry with the athletic association by the Herald was Curtis’  first knowledge of the suspension as of Tuesday, mentioning Greene County had not notified the department, which he said isn’t a direct violation.

A courtesy call is encouraged, he said, but not expected. Unless the outbreak has spread to other schools, situations like this don’t warrant drastic action.

“I don’t know if there’s something that states they have to report it to us. There isn’t a penalty, but we would welcome the call and the conversation to make sure they are showing an improvement and taking the proper steps to a clean bill of health,” Curtis said. “Obviously, it would probably be wise for us to know, but it sounds like they are taking steps for it not to get worse.”

The IAHSAA director of officials said a suspension of this magnitude is rare, at least in Iowa, but did mention a similar situation 11 years ago in the state to Iowa’s north.

The Minnesota High School League suspended wrestling statewide for eight days in February 2007 for a widespread outbreak of herpes gladiatorum.

Twenty-four cases were confirmed by 10 schools, causing the entity to take action, canceling practices and competitions throughout the state.  

At the moment, Greene County’s outbreak doesn’t threaten statewide suspension as the disease appears to be contained to the local team.

No other cases have been reported and the athletic association has not received any concerned inquiries, either. There’s no set protocol as to when a statewide shutdown would occur if the situation were to progress, but because the skin infection has been isolated, IAHSAA Executive Director Alan Beste doesn’t envision any action.

“We don’t have a threshold for how many (it would take),” the IAHSAA administrator said.

The Rams haven’t faced any varsity competition since Dec. 16 at the Tiger-Knight Invitational in Carroll, where they only wrestled seven of 31 guys in a tournament with more than 10 teams in attendance.

The outbreak flared up after that, said Ryan Tasler, father of Ram sophomore Garrett Tasler.

His son hasn’t been infected.

Tasler doesn’t lay any blame on the Ram program. Sawhill and his coaching staff take all the proper measures to ensure a sanitized wrestling room, he said.  

“They’ve done all they can do. They clean the room daily, kids take mandatory showers and have clean clothes,” Tasler said. “As far as their end of it, they’ve done absolutely everything they can do.

“Just a year of bad luck.”  

Initial symptoms can create foggy diagnoses as they are similar to a common cold or flu until the rash appears.

“A couple of the kids started breaking out. You can be infected for eight days and show no signs,” Tasler said. “By then, all your teammates that you’ve worked out with can be infected and it gets in the room, on the towels.

It’s pretty easy to spread.”

He admits confusion and even the desire to blow the symptoms off could have been a common decision in the middle part of December.

“They are teenagers, this is a big deal,” Tasler said. “It spreads so quickly, it’s hard on them, hard on the parents. Just like anything else in life, you have to do your best to move on. As a whole, I think the team is handling it pretty well. They are still in pretty good spirits.”

Despite Greene County’s participation in the Tiger-Knight Invite, Kuemper Catholic activities director Ryan Isgrig said he is unaware of any skin infections within the Knight athletic department and has not been informed of any from teams who competed in the invite.

Isgrig first caught wind of the infection this past week.

“I assume at this point, no news is good news,” Isgrig said. “We will continue to monitor it accordingly. I think right now, we (already) take it into consideration each time we practice.”

Nurse Hicks likened mat herpes to that of the high transmission rate of chicken pox and shingles.

“They are herpes viruses, too,” Hicks said. “They may not be the same, but they are still a herpes virus. (Mat herpes) is along the same lines of chicken pox and shingles how contagious it is.”

Moore said his department and the athletes have followed the athletic association’s guidelines closely.

“As an athletic department and wrestling program, we’ve taken the proper protocol through our trainers and our doctors,” Moore said. “The (wrestlers) are staying away from each other, and we are making sure nothing pops up for eight days. Nothing has popped up recently, and by the time the 15th comes, we should be more than OK.”

There’s nothing the wrestling team did wrong, Moore said, and supports the steps the school has taken.

“I think we did the right things. I don’t think there’s anything too incriminating,” the activities director said. “We are trying to protect our athletes that are infected and most importantly, our opponents.”

The Iowa High School wrestling state tournament Feb. 15-17 is a multimillion-dollar event that has tremendous impact on the economy.

“This is one of the biggest sporting events we see in our community each year,”  said Ryan Vogt, national sales manager with Catch Des Moines. “It is tremendous business that we value at over $6.4 million in economic impact to Greater Des Moines.”

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