At the ongoing ASM-ESCMID conference on methicillin resistant staphylococci in animals, Dr. Engeline van Duijkeren of Utrecht University (The Netherlands) presented a study on an outbreak of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) in their equine hospital.

From 2006-2008, several horses that underwent surgery at their hospital developed MRSA infections.  MRSA was also isolated from some healthy horses and personnel at the clinic. Early in the process, the hospital was closed for a thorough disinfection and the outbreak stopped, however another outbreak occurred later.  Further study again found people in the clinic that were MRSA carriers. Close to 15% of people in the hospital who handled equine patients were MRSA carriers, which is really astounding when you consider that less than 0.1% of the general population in the Netherlands carries MRSA. When they started testing horses coming into the clinic, they found that 9.3% of horses were carriers when they arrived. Weekly sampling of all hospitalized horses over a five-week period determined that 43% of all horses in the hospital carried MRSA at one point or another during their stay. Additionally, 53% of environmental surface samples were positive for MRSA, which is really not surprising if that many people and horses are carriers.

If horses keep coming into a facility carrying MRSA and people keep getting colonized, MRSA is hard to control. These experiences led the equine hospital at Utrecht to implement more stringent infection control practices to try to contain the problem, but the high MRSA rate in their referral population is going to pose a continual risk.

MRSA outbreaks in horses aren’t new. They’ve been reported by a few hospitals (including ours) and occur in many, many, (many!) more without ever being published. Since MRSA is present in the horse population, equine hospitals are at continual risk of MRSA outbreaks. If a large percentage of horses in the general population are carriers, the risk of outbreaks is higher.

MRSA is clearly a problem in horses in many areas. It’s important to realize that it’s a problem in the general population, not just horses in hospitals. Equine hospitals can amplify the spread of MRSA, but ultimately a lot (if not most) MRSA-positive horses originate from farms, not clinics or hospitals. Equine hospitals need solid infection control programs to reduce  the risk of outbreaks, but the risk will never be completely eliminated. Farms need good infection control programs to reduce the risk of spread of MRSA between horses and between farms, as well as from horses to people (and back). Antibiotics need to be used prudently since antibiotic use is a risk factor for MRSA carriage and infection.

More information about MRSA in horses can be found on the equIDblog Resources page.

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