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In spite of worrying reports of the spread of MRSA ST398 in pigs in Europe and N. America, in two recent, major EU surveys (EFSA 2009, 2010) the UK pig industry was shown to be free of MRSA both in pig breeding farms, producing pigs for breeding, and breeding farms producing finishing pigs for pork production. This is exceptionally good news for UK pig producers. However, it does mean that they have to be on their guard not to import pigs from infected countries either for breeding or finishing, especially from Belgium, Germany, Holland, Italy and Spain.

The UK may have been lucky so far, as there have been reports of five human infections in Scotland with ST398 but there have been no direct links to animals established. Other livestock have been shown to carry MRSA, such as horses, cattle and chickens. It is considered that the use of 3rd generation cephalosporins by injection in young pigs to treat or prevent them getting a variety of diseases such as Streptococcus suis and Haemophilus parasuis is the most likely cause of the resistance selection to methicillin in Staphylococcus aureus, almost as an inadvertent side-effect. Products directly related to methicillin are not used in pig medicine but cephalosporin injections are widely, almost routinely used in piglets on the continent and the US, especially at processing, when they are castrated and tail docked or in nurseries. In the UK, piglets are not usually castrated and 42% of our sows and piglets are reared outdoors. Being reared outdoors may also have an impact of the spread of certain diseases such as streptococcal meningitis, which is commonly seen in more confined rearing environments. There is therefore a greater tendency to not use antibiotics by injection in piglets in the UK but especially in outdoor-reared piglets. The older penicillins and amoxycillin are still considered highly effective against S. suis in the UK and are more commonly used. Additionally, in the EU and US there are more severe forms of a virus infection in pigs, porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) virus, which may have an impact and can predispose non-immune piglets to S. suis infections.  In general, most UK pig vets try to follow the responsible use (RUMA) guidelines, especially for cephalosporins, which are not so widely used here in pig medicine.

In Europe, transmission of MRSA from pigs to man is considered primarily an occupational hazard, associated with close contact with pigs. Farmers, vets and their families and also slaughter house workers have been shown to carry the infection but the incidence falls as the contact declines, so that the general public, with no direct pig contact, are not considered under any major threat.

We give thanks to the author of this – David Burch, Veterinarian, Octagon Services Ltd
Web: www.octagon-services.co.uk

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