I received the following question the other day: "I have a friend who had chemo embolization on tumor on liver in late June. She is in hospital now, and an abscess was discovered on liver.  Pathology results said "equine strep".  Her brother visited immediately after procedure, and he works with horse full time."

Streptococcus is a group of bacteria that includes many different species. There are two main species in horses Streptococcus equi subsp. equi (aka S. equi, the cause of strangles) and Streptococcus equi subsp. zooepidemicus (aka S. zooepidemicus, a cause of various types of infections). As you can guess by the ‘equi‘ name, their natural host is the horse. Strep infections are very common in people, but rarely involve these two species. Nonetheless, infections with either Streptococcus equi or S. zooepidemicus can be found in people, but S. zooepidemicus is most common. Usually, these infections develop in people who are already sick for another reason, have compromised immune systems, or in young children. Interestingly, not everyone that is infected reports direct or even indirect contact with horses.

Back to the question: it’s hard to say what’s going on here based on the the general term "equine strep", but presumably the person has an infection with S. equi or S. zooepidemicus. Whether horses are actually involved will be tough (or impossible) to determine. It’s a tempting hypothesis that the patient’s brother carried the bacterium from the farm to the hospital, but I’d be wary about making a definitive statement about the bacterium’s origin solely based on that. There are ways to investigate this further, such as trying to isolate Streptococcus species from horses on the farm, typing them and comparing them to the strain that caused disease in the person, but this type of testing is very costly and almost never performed, as human infection with these species is so uncommon.

This should be a good reminder that people who are sick and in hospital are at higher risk for developing infections, and they can get infections from bacteria that rarely cause disease in healthy individuals. While there is no proof of a link to horses (at least in this case), good infection control practices should be used whenever anyone visits someone in the hospital. That would include not wearing barn clothes to the hospital and paying close attention to handwashing.

This Worms & Germs blog entry was originally posted on equIDblog on 26-Aug-09.