Superbug outbreak: piggery workers affected, cause unknown

There has been an outbreak of the ‘superbug’ Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA)  - a potentially deadly skin infection - among workers at a local piggery. 

It is understood affected workers’ symptoms include boils and abscesses.

The “superbug”, also known as Golden Staph, can withstand a broad and growing range of antibiotics. 

Director of Public Health Unit (PHU) for Murrumbidgee Local Health District, Tracey Oakman said the PHU attended the workplace after receiving a report from the piggery owner. 

“The PHU has been working with the piggery to improve infection control procedures,” she said.

“There are no health risks to the wider public in relation to this.

“The PHU has been working with local doctors to ensure appropriate treatment for workers affected."

Wonga Piggery owner Andree Rowntree said “quite a few” cases of MRSA had been confirmed in employees.

She said the infection was reasonably common in the community - including in hospitals - and the farm was doing its best to get rid of it.   

She said there was no threat to livestock.

It is understood the PHU is collecting specimen samples to determine the source of the infection.

ANU infectious diseases expert Professor Peter Collignon said while the disease was a common problem in hospitals, there was a lack of data in Australia about MRSA in agriculture.

He said it was important for public health officials to take samples from affected workers and to get them tested to determine the source of the outbreak.

The results of tests could shed light on whether the strain was spread from person to person or pig to person and ultimately help with prevention.

“I think one of the problems that may need to be addressed is that we need better surveillance,” he said.

“We know MRSA is a significant problem in parts of Europe and America and we do know people working with livestock have picked it up... but there is a lack of data in Australia.”

Professor Collignon said the infections were most dangerous if they got into the bloodstream.

“The good news about these ones is they tend to be easier to treat than those in hospitals... but if you get a serious infection it’s not good,” he said.

Professor Collignon said measures to stop the spread of the infection on farms were similar to those used in hospitals.

These measures include restricting the use of antibiotics in animals, wearing masks and appropriate protective gear, as well as proper handwashing.

It’s not the first time a local piggery has had to deal with the outbreak of a potentially deadly disease.

Two Young piggery workers were hospitalised a number of years ago after contracting streptococcus suis - a disease in pigs capable of spreading to humans.

A report by Elizabeth Braddon - Young-based regional veterinarian at Riverina Local Land Services - said they were the first human cases recorded in Australia.

In the first case - in 2006 - a woman in her 40s who worked at a local piggery required a heart valve transplant, while in the second case - in 2008 - a man in his 40s required hospitalisation.

Professor Collignon said it was not likely the diseases were at all linked, but the lack of data and research meant it could not be completely ruled out.