It’s one of the touchiest topics under the broad category of antibiotic resistance: Whether the drug-resistant organisms that emerge on farms as a result of antibiotic use stay on farms, or pose a risk to humans who have no connection to agriculture.
That drug resistance emerges under any selective pressure is basic biology: Resistance is an inevitable process. That they emerge on farms when antibiotics are used broadly — that is, in growth-promoting or prophylactic ways, not to treat disease in individual animals — really isn’t in dispute any more. It’s now a question of economics and politics, not science. (See this bibliography, stretching back to 1969; and the news I broke yesterday of FDA’s estimate of US farms using almost 29 million pounds of antibiotics last year.)
So the argument over farm antibiotic use now tends to focus on whether the resistant organisms that emerge on farms are only an issue within a farm’s confines, or rather pose a broader human health threat — and that’s where the continuing story of the “third epidemic” of MRSA becomes so important. Recapping, this is a strain known as MRSA ST398 that emerged in pigs and passed to pig farmers in the Netherlands in 2004, subsequently spread across the European Union, and crossed to Canada and then to the United States. (Key posts on ST398: here, here, here and this archive at my old site. Yes, it will be moved soon, promise.)
Most of the identifications of MRSA ST398 in humans, including those first identifications above, were colonizations, the term for symptomless carriage of staph in the nostrils and on the skin; in other words, it wasn’t making people sick. News of actual illnesses has been rare — especially illnesses among people who have no contact with farming, such as the post-surgical infections found in Canada earlier this year.
But they’re getting a little less rare, as demonstrated by a letter just posted ahead-of-print to the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases. It recounts the finding, via annual surveys of bloodstream infections, of four cases of ST398 in four different hospitals in France. One may have been due to animal exposure. Three were hospital-acquired.
Examination of patient histories revealed exposure to animals in 1 case, a fatal idiopathic community-acquired bloodstream infection in an 84-year-old man who lived on a farm at which 1 pig was being raised. The remaining cases were hospital-acquired and included 1 case of catheter-associated infection observed in a 58-year-old man with advanced multiple myeloma, 1 case following elective digestive tract surgery in a 69-year-old woman, and 1 case following cardiac surgery in a 68-year-old man.
There’s an especially interesting thing about these cases. In Europe and the US, ST398 has particular characteristics: It is resistant to tetracycline (the drug most commonly given to pigs) and does not manufacture the toxin Panton-Valentine leukocidin or PVL, which is suspected to be a cause of community-strain MRSA’s uncommon virulence. (See this story, from the book SUPERBUG, of how PVL-positive pneumonia almost killed a toddler.) The strain in the French cases, though, does manufacture PVL, and shares some virulence characteristics with the dominant community strain, USA300. It is less like the European strain of livestock-associated MRSA and more like a livestock-associated strain that appears to be emerging in China, ST9 (more on that here).
The argument against the significance of these cases is likely to be that they are, again, just one data-point, and may be just rare and random. That is worth considering. But it is also worth considering that they continue to be found.
And, also, that the community epidemic of MRSA was first flagged in a discovery of 25 cases in children in Chicago back in 1998, a finding that was also dismissed at the time as rare and random — and that grew into an epidemic of millions of cases a year.
(H/t to constant reader Pat Gardiner for flagging this paper for me.)
Cite: van der Mee-Marquet N et al. Emergence of Unusual Bloodstream Infections Associated with Pig-Borne–Like Staphylococcus aureus ST398 in France. Clin Infect Dis. (2011) 52 (1): 152-153. doi: 10.1093/cid/ciq053