Equine MRSA in Israel - Different strain, same old tricks

It's been quite a while since the last post about MRSA in horses, but rest assured, it's still out there!  Not too surprisingly it's also spreading (or at least starting to be found) in new places.  A recent report in Veterinary Microbiology (Schwaber et al, 2013) describes an MRSA outbreak at a large animal teaching hospital in Israel.  It is the first report of MRSA colonization in horses in the Middle East, although it's possible (and quite likely) that there's more to be found.

The discovery of the problem had a pretty typical progression: there were two horses in the hospital with post-operative wound infections from which Staphylococcus aureus was cultured, and the isolates from both horses had similar antimicrobial resistance patterns, including resistance to all beta-lactam antimicrobials (= MRSA). Validly concerned about the potential for the MRSA to spread among horses and people in the hospital, an investigation ensued - in this case the National Center for Infection Control (NCIC) was actually called in to coordinate the operation.

  • They found MRSA in 12/84 (14.3%) horses, of which 11 were in the hospital at the time of sampling, and 1 had recently been discharged from the hospital.  Consider though that 44 of the horses sampled were simply from farms from which an MRSA-positive horse had come - so 11/40 horses in the hospital were positive - that's 27.5%!
  • 16/139 (11.5%) of personnel at the teaching hospital were positive for MRSA.  Fortunately there were no clinical MRSA infections reported in people.
  • The MRSA strain that was found in all the horses and most of the people was a very rare type - not the usual sequence type 8 (ST8) we're used to finding in horses in various other parts of the world.  This one was an ST5, spa-type t535, SCCmec type V, which is even rare in the human population.
  • The primary action taken to get the outbreak under control: increased infection control measures, including isolation of infected and colonized horses which were then handled with contact precautions (e.g. gloves, gowns), discharging horses from hospital as soon as medically possible to decrease transmission pressure, and having a nurse from the NCIC come in to instruct personnel on the measures to be taken, including emphasis on hand hygiene and increased use of alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • In this outbreak, decolonization therapy was prescribed for all colonized personnel.

The report does not mention whether or not personnel at the hospital were required to submit to being tested and undergoing decolonization therapy.  This can be a very tricky issue to handle, and it depends on what the local laws are.  In Canada, employees cannot be forced to undergo testing or treatment, but in some other countries MRSA-positive healthcare workers may not be allowed to even work until their carrier status is cleared.

Interestingly enough, just a year or two before this outbreak occurred a study (as yet unpublished) had been carried out in the same region, during which they found MRSA in 7.2% (6/83) of hospitalized horses and none in horses from local farms.  There is no mention regarding whether or not the hospital had taken measures to eradicate MRSA from the facility before the clinical infections that triggered the outbreak investigation occurred.

This was a typical MRSA "iceberg" - a couple of clinical cases were triggers for an investigation that found a lot more horses and people were actually carriers.  This is exactly why it's important to remain diligent about infection control measures like hand hygiene at all times, so that pathogens like MRSA don't move in "under the radar."  The authors of the paper summed it up nicely (although I'd leave out the part about decolonization):

"Strict implementation of hand hygiene, isolation of colonized and infected horses, decolonization
of colonized personnel and above all, constant education of veterinary students and personnel about the importance of infection control measures are required in order to decrease the risk for colonization and infection of both horses and personnel by MRSA and other pathogens."

More information about MRSA in horses is available on the Worms & Germs Resource - Horses page.

Study Seeking "Superbugs" In Horses

A two-part study (Maddox et al. 2011) was recently published online in the Equine Veterinary Journal looking at antimicrobial resistant "superbugs" in horses in the UK.  The first part of the study had the simple objective of estimating the prevalence of both MRSA nasal colonization and fecal shedding of antimicrobial resistant E. coli in the UK horse population. The reason they were looking at E. coli is because this bacterium is part of the normal intestinal flora of most animals (including horses), so it's easy to find, and it is frequently exposed to antimicrobials whenever a horse is treated systemically (i.e. with either oral or injectable antibiotics), so researchers use it as an "indicator" for resistance that may develop in other bacteria as well.  E. coli doesn't typically cause gastrointestinal disease in horses like it can in people, nonetheless E. coli is a common cause of uterine, urinary and wound infections in horses, as well as septicemia in foals, and antimicrobial resistant infections in these situations can certainly be a big problem.

Out of 678 nasal swabs (taken from horses on over 500 premises), only 4 (0.6%) were positive for MRSA.  That's good to see, as it's very easy for MRSA to spread in a horse population "under the radar," because colonized horses do not have any outward signs that they are carrying the pathogen.  The overall low prevalence in the community setting is similar to previous community studies in the UK and other areas.  Out of 650 fecal samples, 452 (72.2%) were positive for an E. coli that was resistant to at least one antimicrobial.  That's not too surprising.  The bigger concern is that 233 (37.6% - over one third of all horses tested) samples contained multidrug-resistant E.coli (defined in this study as resistance to more than three antimicrobial classes) and 42 (6.3%) samples contained an E. coli that produced an extended-spectrum beta-lactamase (ESBL).  ESBLs are particularly problematic because they can be relatively easily transferred between bacteria, they confer resistance to a large number of commonly used antimicrobials in the beta-lactam class (which includes penicillins and cephalosporins), and are frequently associated with genes that confer resistance to other antimicrobial classes as well.  Bacteria that produce ESBLs are a significant problem in human medicine and have been reported to cause infection in horses as well.

The second part of the study used information collected from questionnaires filled out by the horse owners to try to determine risk factors that affected the odds of a particular horse shedding antimicrobial-resistant E. coli.  They used some pretty heavy-duty statistical analysis because they were looking at so many factors and different outcomes, and any time that happens you have to take the final numbers with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, the results can help point the way for future studies to help determine which factors may have the biggest impact on the risk. The authors found recent hospitalization and veterinary treatment for various conditions over the last six months were associated with higher odds of shedding multidrug-resistant strains of E. coli, and the type of farm/facility also affected the odds.  In addition, having a recently hospitalized horse on the premises (among other things) increased the odds of a horse shedding ESBL E.coli.

What does all this mean for the average horse owner?  The results really aren't new or startling.  We already know that antimicrobial resistance is a growing problem in equine medicine, as it is in veterinary and human medicine in general, and this is one more set of studies that provides evidence to that effect.  I have no doubt that if a similar study was performed in North America the same kinds of resistant bacteria would be detected, although the numbers may vary somewhat one way or another.  The second part of the study also re-emphasize the role that antimicrobial use plays in promoting development of and selection for resistant bacteria, and the potential for the treatment of certain horses to affect the microbes being carried and shed by the animals around them.  In the end, it comes down to being responsible about how we use antimicrobials in order to curb the development of resistance, so that these important drugs remain effective for treating serious infections in the future.  This applies equally to their use in people and animals of all kinds.

MRSA In Aussie Horses

In the early 2000s, we took a lot of bad publicity in Ontario (particularly at the Ontario Veterinary College) because of MRSA in horses. While MRSA had been found in horses before and there were anecdotal reports of MRSA infections and outbreaks in different areas, the fact that we intensively investigated the issue and published a lot of our findings made it look like we were the hotbed of MRSA internationally. We suspected at the time that MRSA was widespread in horses and that the limited reports were because few people were looking or publishing their observations. That suspicion has been supported by reports over the past few years of MRSA in horses in many countries, and it appears that MRSA is present in horses around the world.

A recent study from Australia (Axon et al, Australian Veterinary Journal 2011) provides more support for this conclusion. In the study, horses that were admitted to a veterinary hospital's intensive care unit over a 30 day period in 2008 were tested for MRSA carriage by culturing swabs from their noses. MRSA was isolated from 3.7% of horses, which is similar to the prevalence here based on data we've gathered over the years.

For the second part of the study, the authors looked at medical records from horses at the hospital from 2004-2009 and collected data on MRSA infections. During that time, MRSA was isolated from 75 horses.

  • That number (75) surprises me a little, since it's much higher than what we see here. Even though we see approximately 2% of horses carrying MRSA when they arrive at the hospital, we have a very low MRSA infection rate in our patient population. A few of those 75 horses probably didn't really have MRSA infections, since nine horses only had positive nasal samples which is more likely to be from subclinical colonization rather than infection of the nasal passages. A few others had MRSA isolated from catheter sites, and it's hard to say whether those are truly infection or just contamination of the skin. So, the number of true infections might be lower, but it's still a significant issue. It would be interesting to know how many of those horses came in with MRSA infections versus how many picked up MRSA in hospital.

Wound infections were most common, accounting for 43 (57%) of the cases. Five horses were euthanized because of the MRSA infection, all of which had joint infections that did not respond to intensive treatment.

One farm accounted for 18 MRSA-positive results in the second part of the study, as well as two positive horses in the surveillance part of the study. This farm would seem to have a pretty big MRSA problem, which we've seen occasionally on a few biohazardous breeding farms that we've found over the years.  MRSA can be controlled on farms like that but it takes effort. We've had some farms address the issue properly and eliminate MRSA, while others essentially ignored the problem and continued to have widespread MRSA for years. 

Not surprisingly, most of the MRSA isolates in the Australian study belonged to sequence type 8 (ST8), the group of MRSA that we find in horses here in Ontario and internationally. This is a recognized human strain that seems to have become adapted to horses. It's also found in a disproportionately high percentage of horse owners and horse vets, likely indicating movement of teh strain between horses and people.

Overall, the results of this study are not surprising, but are very useful in that they support the notion that MRSA is present in horses around the world, and the situation with MRSA in horses is probably quite similar in many different countries. 

More information about MRSA in horses can be found in on the Worms & Germs Resources - Horses  page.

Equine Infectious Disease Information Sheets

Click on any of the highlighted links below for more information about these horse-related infectious disease topics. Topics that are not highlighted are in development and coming soon. New information will be added as it becomes available, so be sure to check this page regularly for the latest updates.

Bacteria Viruses Parasites Other
Clostridium difficile Rabies Bots Pleuropneumonia
Clostridial Myonecrosis Eastern Equine Encephalitis Equine Protozoal Myeloencephalitis (EPM) Neonatal Diarrhea
Strangles (Streptococcus equi) Equine Herpesvirus Cyathostomes
(Small Strongyles)
Needlestick Injuries
Methicillin-resistant Staph aureus (MRSA) Equine Influenza Large Strongyles Colostrum
Lawsonia West Nile Virus Tapeworms  
Rhodococcus equi Equine Infectious Anemia - Summary Pinworms  
Tetanus Equine Infectious Anemia - Full-length    
Botulism -
Botulism -
"Shaker Foals"

All information sheets found on this page can be freely downloaded, printed and distributed. The authors only request that this website (www.wormsandgermsblog.com, previously www.equIDblog.com) is acknowledged as the source.  The downloadable files on this page can be opened with Adobe® Reader®.  To get the latest version of Adobe® Reader® for free, click here.