Let's go back for a moment to what I think of as the "third epidemic" of MRSA: ST398 and the other strains that reside in animals and cross to humans. (In my personal taxonomy, the first and second epidemics are hospital-acquired and community-associated.)
Via Emerging Infectious Diseases, the open-access journal published by the CDC (Do I have to keep telling you to read it? It's free. It's good. Your tax dollars pay for it.), comes a report of surveillance for MRSA colonization of pig-farm workers, conducted in Belgium by researchers from Erasmus Hospital of the Free University of Brussels, and the Veterinary and Agrochemical Research Centre of Brussels. The group persuaded 127 farm workers on 49 farms to be tested for colonization, or asymptomatic carriage, of MRSA; at the same time, they tested 30 randomly selected pigs on each farm.
They found very high rates of colonization, higher than have been found in patients in hospitals or residents of nursing homes: 38% of the farm workers carried MRSA ST398, the pig strain (plus, an additional 17% carried various strains of MSSA, drug-susceptible staph). There was a clear association between colonized farmers and colonized pigs: Out of 1500 pigs sampled, 44% carried ST398 — and half of the workers on farms with colonized pigs were colonized also, compared to only 3% of workers on farms where pigs did not carry the bug.
In a bit of good news, the researchers found only one farm worker who had suffered any MRSA disease from ST398, a man with a lesion on his hand. There was no invasive disease, though ST398 has been associated in the past with pneumonia and endocarditis.
Workers were more likely to acquire the bug if they had regular contact with pigs, dogs or horses, which makes intuitive sense. But in an odd finding, their odds of acquiring ST398 did not go down if they wore protective clothing — which is to say, aprons, gloves and masks did not protect them from picking up the bug, leading the researchers to wonder whether airborne spread or contaminated surfaces are playing a role in transmission.
So what does this mean? The lack of invasive disease in this population must be good news; and it's consistent with a number of papers that have reported low rates of disease from ST398 even when colonization is present. But to me, the high rate of colonization must be bad news. The more of this bug there is (and every researcher who looks for it seems to find it), the more chance there is of the bug adapting in an unpredictable — potentialy more resistant, potentially more virulent — way. If that did happen, it could well go undetected for a while — because as swine flu has been teaching us, disease surveillance in animals is patchy at best, and new pathogens can and do arise and ciruclate for years before being detected.
For more on the paucity of surveillance in animals, see my CIDRAP colleague Lisa Schnirring's story here. For a complete archive of posts on "pig MRSA" ST398, go here.
The cite is: Denis O, Suetens C, Hallin M, Catry B, Ramboer I, Dispas M, et al. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus ST398 in swine farm personnel, Belgium. Emerg Infect Dis. 2009 Jul; [Epub ahead of print] DOI: 10.3201/eid1507.080652.