Latest news first, though. A few days ago, an intriguing conference was held in London: Methicillin-resistant Staphylococci in Animals: Veterinary and Public Health Implications. It was co-sponsored by the American Society for Microbiology and the European Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases, and it was the first conference ever convened to examine the behavior in animals of MRSA and other staph species, including our old friend, ST398.
I have the abstracts (which have not otherwise been published), and wow, there was a ton of news.
Here's the biggest: An investigation by a team at University of Iowa (the same group that first identified ST398 in pigs and pig farmers in the United States) found significant amounts of MRSA in pigs and in human workers on 4 out of 7 conventional farms, but no MRSA on 6 organic farms. MRSA was present — as a colonizing organism, not causing illness — in 23% of the 168 pigs sampled on the conventional farms, and 58% of 45 humans who worked on those farms. "These results suggest a significant number of U.S. swine may be colonized with MRSA, adding to the concern about domestic animal species as a reservoir of this bacterium," the abstract says. "Furthermore, occupational exposure to these colonized pigs may spread the bacteria from the farm to the community via a high number of colonized swine workers." (Author: Abby L. Harper, MPH, University of Iowa)
A partial list of the other findings announced:
- MRSA ST398, which emerged as an animal and human pathogen in the Netherlands, is now causing human colonization and illnesses in other countries. Denmark, which like the Netherlands has a very low background rate of MRSA, has detected 109 cases since 2003, 35 of them with actual infections. Two of the infections were very serious: one pneumonia in a newborn baby, and one septic arthritis in an adult that led to sepsis and multi-organ failure. (J. Larsen, National Centre for Antimicrobials and Infection Control, Denmark)
- Meanwhile, the Netherlands — which conducts routine screening for MRSA carriage on hospital admission — has seen its annual count of MRSA detections rise from 16 per year between 2002 ad 2006 to 148 per year between 2006 and 2008, with 81% of the current cases due to ST398. (M. Wulf, PAMM Laboratory, the Netherlands) UPDATE: Coilin Nunan of the Soil Association in the UK corrects me (thanks, Coilin!): This study covers only the southeastern pig-farming areas, or about 40% of the MRSA cases in the country.
- MRSA ST398 spreads from infected to uninfected pigs during transport to slaughterhouses and while being held at slaughterhouses. (E. M. Broens, Wageningen University, the Netherlands)
- More than 15% of slaughterhouse workers who handle live pigs — but none of those who handled pig carcasses after slaughter — were carrying MRSA 398, and 25% of environmental samples such as dust taken from different parts of slaughterhouses were carrying the organism as well. (B. A. van Cleef, RIVM [National Institute for Public Health and the Environment], the Netherlands)
- Along with the pig-origin ST398, recognized human strains of MRSA can also colonize pigs, according to a study on one Norwegian farm, but human strains are less successful at persisting in pigs and tend to die out after months. (M. Sunde, National Veterinary Institute, Norway)
- Animal-origin MRSA is rising in China, the world's largest producer of pork, but the problematic strain there is ST9, not ST398. That MRSA strain was found on 5 out of 9 farms in Sichuan province in mainland China, and in 33.5% of 260 pigs slaughtered in Hong Kong, where more than 90% of pork comes from the mainland. (J. A. Wagenaar, Central Veterinary Institute, the Netherlands; and M. V. Boost, Hong Kong Polytechnic University)
- And an intriguing finding for those concerned about humane slaughter methods: Broiler chickens were significantly more likely to carry MRSA, and transmit it to slaughterhouse workers, if they were killed by the traditional method of electrical shock followed by throat-slitting, and less likely to carry or transmit the bug if they were killed by carbon dioxide asphyxiation, which has been held out as a more humane method of killing. (M. N. Mulders, RIVM [National Institute for Public Health and the Environment], the Netherlands)