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MRSA found in pigs in England

Government scientists have reported the first-ever cases of livestock-associated MRSA in pigs in England which could become a serious hazard for people.

This is an incredibly worrying development and one which needs action now.

Compassion is part of the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics, which advocates a drastic reduction in antibiotic use on farms.

Cóilín Nunan, Principal Scientific Adviser to the Alliance, said: “The latest European research shows that livestock-associated MRSA could become a much bigger public-health threat unless decisive action is taken."

Livestock-associated MRSA can transmit to humans, causing infections. Farmers and farm workers are most at risk and still account for the majority of cases.

However, in the last year, scientists in Germany, Spain, the Netherlands and Denmark have all reported an increasing number of cases in people with no direct livestock contact, suggesting the strain is evolving to spread more easily between people, a development that scientists have been warning of for years.

In December, French, Swiss and Dutch scientists published genetic evidence that this is now happening. The scientists found that a subpopulation of livestock-associated MRSA has acquired new genes which appear to enable the bacteria to cause more infections in animals and to spread to and infect humans more easily.

They said that the strain was now a “serious hazard for humans” which had “the capacity for pandemic spread in humans” and called for “active surveillance”.

Unlike most European countries, the UK has refused to carry out any active MRSA surveillance of its pig and poultry, other than an EU-mandated survey of pigs in 2008.

Tip of the iceberg

Cóilín says: “It’s scandalous that Defra still isn’t doing any proper MRSA surveillance of British pigs. Defra’s inactivity on this issue for years has allowed this situation to develop.

“These cases are likely to only be the tip of the iceberg. MRSA may already be much more widespread in British pigs since most pigs with the bacteria show no visible infection.”

“In the Netherlands they implemented large reductions in farm antibiotic use and the number of human cases of livestock-associated MRSA is now falling. This shows that restricting farm antibiotic use can have real benefits for human health. The British government should urgently take similar action here.” 

The current cases only came to light after an outbreak of skin disease affecting 60 piglets on a farm in eastern England. Two piglets were tested by Defra scientists and both were MRSA positive.