The government is being called on to carry out a full MRSA survey of the UK pig industry to determine how widespread the superbug is after the first-ever case in a British pig was found in Northern Ireland.
The Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics is also calling for immediate restrictions to be introduced on the farm use of antibiotics classified as ‘critically important’ in human medicine in order to reduce the spread of the bacteria.
Alison Craig, Campaign Manager for the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics said: “The finding of MRSA in a UK pig has to kick-start the government into finally taking action against the overuse of antibiotics in farming. In the Netherlands, they have cut total farm antibiotic use by 63% in the last six years, whereas in the UK, use has actually gone up during that time.”
The overuse on farms of critically important antibiotics which select for livestock-associated MRSA (LA-MRSA) means that the bacteria are likely to spread rapidly, as has occurred in other countries where LA-MRSA emerged.
LA-MRSA was first found in pigs in the Netherlands in 2004, and has since become widespread in intensively farmed pigs, poultry and veal calves in many European countries and in North America but this is the first time a case has been reported in pigs in the UK. LA-MRSA has also been found in British poultry and in bulk milk from dairy cattle, but it is not known how common the bacteria are in UK farm animals because of a lack of surveys.
LA-MRSA can spread to humans and cause serious infections including blood poisoning, pneumonia and heart and bone infections. People directly in contact with affected farm animals, including farmers and vets, are most at risk. Their family members are also at increased risk.
Derek Butler, Chairman of MRSA Action UK and who has lost three family members to MRSA, said: “This is no surprise to MRSA Action UK. We have to understand that bacteria know no boundaries between countries, animals or people. We are sitting on a time bomb waiting to explode. Sooner or later bacteria will transfer from animals to humans causing infections.”
However, the Danish government recently announced that four deaths from LA-MRSA had occurred, and none of the patients had any known connection to farming, suggesting that the bacteria can also spread more widely . Similarly, a Dutch hospital study published last month found that LA-MRSA was spreading to people without direct contact with farm animals, particularly when hospitals were located in areas with high densities of pig farms. Human LA-MRSA infections have already occurred in Scotland and in England where the patients were not directly connected to farming.
Cóilín Nunan, Principal Scientific Adviser to the Alliance, said “Studies have shown that organic and antibiotic-free pigs have much less MRSA than intensively farm animals raised with routine antibiotic use. Data from the Netherlands also shows that their cuts in farm antibiotic use have resulted in fewer human cases of livestock-associated MRSA, providing clear evidence that reducing farm antibiotic use is beneficial for human health.”
Defra and the Department of Health have said that LA-MRSA is not a significant threat to human health. However, recent German research found that some sub-strains of LA-MRSA are more virulent than others, and the scientists warned that the ‘huge reservoir’ of LA-MRSA in livestock and the constant transmission to humans meant that the bacteria pose ‘a serious threat to human health’ as they have ample opportunity to adapt to infecting humans.