Animals Can Harbor MRSA
Maryn McKenna may be the premier U.S. public health journalist.
Her nickname is "Scary Disease Girl," which she acquired filing reports from places such as a graveyard within the Arctic Circle that held victims of the 1918 flu and a malaria hospital in Malawi. She helped uncover the first cases of Gulf War Syndrome.
In the podcast linked below, McKenna turns her attention to MRSA, the antibiotic-resistant staph strain that kills 19,000 Americans every year.
According to Grist:
"MRSA has a major food angle: Today, as much as 70 percent of antibiotics consumed in the United States go into concentrated-animal feedlot operations, or CAFOs, and these vast, factory-scale animal farms have been shown to harbor a novel MRSA strain."
Up to 30 percent of people carry staph bacteria on their skin without it causing any problems. If the bacteria enter your body through a cut, it may cause an infection (staph bacteria is one of the most common causes of skin infections in the United States) but even these are typically mild and can be easily treated.
Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA), on the other had, is much more dangerous because it has become resistant to the broad-spectrum antibiotics commonly used to treat it, such as methicillin, oxacillin, penicillin and amoxicillin.
This "super bug" is constantly adapting, and while it was first confined to hospital settings (or those who had recently spent time in a hospital or other health care setting), it's now becoming increasingly common in people who have picked it up in schools, locker rooms, gyms or other community settings.
A third variety of MRSA has also evolved among livestock animals, and there is increasing concern that this strain could begin to infect humans all over the globe.
Why are Livestock Infected With MRSA?
MRSA was first discovered in pigs and pig-farm workers in the Netherlands in 2004. Since then, this livestock MRSA strain has spread across Europe, Canada and the United States, causing both mild and life-threatening infections, and has even been found in retail meat in Canada.
Where is this superbug coming from? Well, it's important to realize that antibiotic-resistant disease like MRSA is a man-made problem, caused by overuse of antibiotics.
It is not merely a lack of hygiene or proper disinfection techniques that have brought these superbugs to the point of being impervious to nearly all medications we have at our disposal.
Antibiotics are not only over-prescribed in modern medicine, they are also widely over-used in agriculture -- a fact that is often grossly overlooked.
About 70 percent of antibiotic use in the United States is for agricultural purposes. Animals are often fed antibiotics at low doses for disease prevention and growth promotion, and those antibiotics are transferred to you via meat and even manure used for fertilizer.
Cutting Down on Agricultural Antibiotic Use Reduces Antibiotic-Resistant Disease in Humans
Some countries have realized the hazard inherent in the overuse of antibiotics and have opted for a healthier approach to raising their livestock. Denmark, for example, stopped the widespread use of antibiotics in their pork industry 12 years ago. After they implemented the ban on antibiotics, a Danish study confirmed that it had drastically reduced antibiotic-resistant bacteria in animals and food.
Studies have also shown that when you alter the use of antibiotics in meat production, human disease caused by antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria is significantly impacted.
In one such study, when different countries introduced certain antibiotics on farms, a surge in people contracting antibiotic-resistant intestinal infections occurred one to two years later. One type of infection, Campylobacter, increased 20 percent in Denmark and 70 percent in Spain.
Australia also confirmed that after its ban on fluoroquinolones in all food animals, only 2 percent of Australian patients tested positive for the drug-resistant strain of Campylobacter jejuni (a leading bacterial cause of food-borne illness that has exhibited drug-resistant strains), whereas the prevalence of drug resistance can be as high as 29 percent in countries that allow the use of fluoroquinolone.
And, according to a 2006 study published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases, bacteria from conventional chicken, and people who ate the chicken, became resistant to Synercid (a strong antibiotic used to treat antibiotic-resistant bacteria) more often than the bacteria found in antibiotic-free chicken, or in vegetarians.
In fact, the study found it was rare to find drug-resistant bacteria among antibiotic-free chicken, while the majority of bacterial isolates from conventional poultry were resistant.
The study indicated that the use of antibiotics in poultry (in this case the antibiotics were used to promote growth) may harm humans' health in the long-term.
So, the agriculture industry's practice of using antibiotics, along with the overuse of antibiotics for medicine, is indeed a driving force behind the development of antibiotic resistance in a now wide variety of bacteria that cause human disease -- including MRSA.
MRSA Most Common in Hospitals
MRSA is spread through contact, which means you can get it by touching a person or object that has the bacteria on them. Items in your house and even your pets can harbor and spread this dangerous bacteria.
However, most commonly MRSA is picked up in a hospital or other health care setting such as a nursing home or dialysis center. In this case, it's known as health care-associated MRSA (HA-MRSA).
Six out of seven people infected with MRSA contract it at a health-care facility, where the infection can show up in surgical wounds or around feeding tubes, catheters or other invasive devices.
Rates of MRSA in health care settings have been climbing steadily, and a recent study of UK nursing homes found 24 percent of residents and 7 percent of staff were colonized with MRSA, which means they were carrying the bacteria on their skin but not necessarily showing signs of infection.
Further, a 2007 report from the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology estimated that 46 out of every 1,000 people hospitalized are infected or colonized with MRSA.
In fact, simply spending time in a hospital, particularly if you have a weakened immune system, underlying health problem or surgical wound, is a risk factor for MRSA, as is living in a nursing home or having any type of invasive medical device, such as a catheter, feeding tube, or being on dialysis.
That is one of the reasons why you want to take control of your health and avoid hospitals whenever you can. This can be a key strategy to avoiding MRSA and other types of antibiotic-resistant disease.
How to Avoid MRSA …
Antibiotic-resistant infections now claim more lives each year than the "modern plague" of AIDS, so it's important to take prevention seriously.
First, everyone needs to do their part to stop overusing antibiotics unnecessarily. This is of course an issue that must be addressed on a large scale, both within modern medicine and agriculture, but you also need to evaluate your own use of antibiotics, and avoid taking them -- or giving them to your children -- unless absolutely necessary.
Whenever you use an antibiotic, you're increasing your susceptibility to developing infections with resistance to that antibiotic -- and you can become the carrier of this resistant bug, and spread it to others, so use wise judgment before choosing to take one.
You can also significantly reduce your exposure to antibiotics by choosing organic meat and dairy products for your family, as these will be antibiotic-free.
Next, you will want to stay out of hospitals as much as possible, as this is the most likely place where you will contract MRSA.
There are also several sound methods that can greatly hinder the spread of infectious disease, including MRSA, on a day-to-day basis:
Wash Your Hands ... and Make Sure Your Doctor Does Too
Handwashing, which is one of the oldest and most powerful antibacterial treatments, may be the key to preventing MRSA.
According to a Johns Hopkins study, the best way for patients to avoid such infections is for doctors and nurses to simply wash their hands before touching a patient. This is the most common violation in hospitals!
Be sure to use a mild soap, and avoid all antibacterial soaps as they typically contain triclosan, a dangerous chemical that can cause even more resistant bacteria. More importantly, antibacterial agents are not necessary for soap to work.
Studies have shown that people who use antibacterial soaps and cleansers develop a cough, runny nose, sore throat, fever, vomiting, diarrhea and other symptoms just as often as people who use products that do not contain these antibacterial ingredients. In other words they are unnecessary and can cause you additional problems.
Guidelines to proper hand-washing include:
Wash your hands for 10 to 15 seconds with warm water
Use plain soap
Clean all the nooks and crannies of your hands, including under fingernails
Rinse thoroughly under running water
In public places use a paper towel to open the door as a protection from germs that harbor on handles
Avoid Sharing Your Personal Items
Since infection can spread by contact with contaminated objects, keep personal items like towels, clothing, bed linens, athletic equipment, razors and more to yourself.
Use Natural Disinfectants
As with antibacterial hand soaps, antibacterial house cleaners are also best avoided. A natural all-purpose cleanser that works great for kitchen counters, cutting boards and bathrooms is 3 percent hydrogen peroxide and vinegar. Just put each liquid into a separate spray bottle, then spray the surface with one, followed by the other.
Researchers have found that allicin, the active compound in garlic, is an effective, natural "antibiotic" that can eradicate even antibiotic-resistant bugs like MRSA. An added benefit is that the bacteria appear incapable of developing a resistance to the compound.
Keep in mind that the garlic must be fresh! The active ingredient is destroyed within one hour of smashing the garlic, so garlic pills are virtually worthless and should not be used.
Instead, compress the garlic with a spoon prior to swallowing it (if you are not going to juice it). If you swallow the clove intact you will not convert the allicin to its active ingredient.
Of course, another important way for you to avoid getting a serious MRSA infection is to keep your own immune system in top working order. As always, eating healthy, exercising and tending to your emotional health will lower your risk of all kinds of dangerous infections.
MRSA: How to Keep This Deadly Super Bug From Infecting You
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How Washington Hospitals Unleashed an MRSA Epidemic
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