Infections in Hog Heaven

Industrial hog farm jobs linked to antibiotic-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, Johns Hopkins research found.

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Industrial hog farms can be pitiless by nature. These operations, sometimes called concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), raise domestic pigs up to slaughter weight as rapidly as possible. New research suggests that the hogs aren’t the only ones affected by the brutal environment.

According to a press release issued by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, a new study found that workers at industrial hog production facilities aren’t only carrying livestock-associated antibiotic-resistant bacteria in their noses, but they’re also developing skin infections.

“Before this study, we knew that many hog workers were carrying livestock-associated and multidrug-resistant Staphylococcus aureus strains in their noses, but we didn’t know what that meant in terms of worker health,” lead researcher Christopher D. Heaney, PhD, said in the press release.

Dr. Heaney is an assistant professor at the Bloomberg School’s departments of Environmental Health and Engineering and Epidemiology. He continued by saying that previous ideas on carrying these types of bacteria weren't clear, but that might be changing.

“It wasn’t clear whether hog workers carrying these bacteria might be at increased risk of infection," Dr. Heaney said. "This study suggests that carrying these bacteria may not always be harmless to humans.”

To conduct the study, researchers asked 103 hog workers in North Carolina and 80 members of their households to have their noses swabbed for Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus). They also showed the participants pictures of skin and soft tissue infections caused by S. aureus and asked if they’d developed any of the skin symptoms.

They found that 45 of the 103 hog workers and 31 of the 80 household members carried S. aureus in their noses. Nearly half of the strains being carried by hog workers and a third carried by household members were multi-drug resistant. Six percent of hog workers and 11 percent of children living with them reported a recent skin or soft tissue infection.

Hog workers with S. aureus in their noses were five times more likely to report a skin or soft tissue infection than hog workers without S. aureus. This connection was even stronger among hog workers who carried multi-drug resistant S. aureus.

Study authors said that 89 percent of hog workers included in the study were Hispanic and that many were likely without insurance. Researchers believe that studies like this can help focus on risks to a population that is vulnerable, and likely to otherwise fall through the cracks.

Each year in the US, about two million people become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). At least 23,000 of those people die each year as a direct result of these infections.

Check out this article to see how much bacteria people are carrying around with them.

The full study was published in PLOS ONE.

It was funded in part by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the Johns Hopkins NIOSH Education and Research Center.

The authors declared no conflicts of interest.

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