Environment

Hog farm workers more likely to harbor swine bacteria; kids at risk, too

Hog

Those nostrils are cute, but full of bacteria. (Photo: Creative Commons)

There are 480 industrial hog farms within the 819 square miles of Duplin County, so it’s unsurprising that bacteria malingers in that environment. What is surprising is that children whose parents work at these farms are more likely to harbor a type of human staph bacteria, compared with kids whose parents don’t.

A study of 400 people who live in hog country in eastern North Carolina showed that 53 percent of adult farmworkers and 49 percent of young children of farmworkers carry Staphyloccus aureus in their noses. That compares to just a third of people whose households aren’t regularly exposed to livestock.

A greater percentage of the affected kids — but not the adults — had antibiotic-resistant strains of the bacteria, as well.

These findings are important from an environmental and a public health standpoint. Hogs at these giant farms are commonly given low doses of antibiotics to keep them from getting sick in crowded conditions and to make them grow faster and larger. But over time, the bacteria essentially figure out a work-around: They become resistant to the antibiotics.

Since human and swine staph can be swapped between the us and the pigs, both species can contract antibiotic-resistant types from each other. For example, the study showed that employees of these large farms were more likely to have a type of swine staph bacteria in their noses than people who hadn’t worked in the livestock industry within the past year.

“Farmers don’t always protect themselves, and some don’t know how,” said Sarah Rhodes, one of the researchers.

And kids, with their developing immune systems — and the tendency to put all of sorts of objects in their mouths — are particularly at risk of contracting resistant strains. Fourteen percent of kids in the farmworker households carried MRSA, a type resistant to a specific antibiotic, and nearly a quarter had multi-drug resistant strains. By comparison, just 6 and 8 percent of kids from non-farmworker homes carried that bacteria.

No one who carried the staph had an active infection, Rhodes said.

The study was conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Johns Hopkins and REACH, a community group based in Warsaw, in Duplin County. The findings were presented at an environmental justice summit in Whitakers last week and in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

It didn’t appear that kids got the bacteria from their parents’ nostrils. (In the study, nostrils are called “nares.”)  It’s more likely, Rhodes said, that the staph hitchhiked into the home on the workers’ clothing. The evidence suggests that more of the staph is present in children when the adult worker brought the protective gear home.

Most of the farmworker households surveyed were Latino. A third of them reported that they didn’t have health insurance. That’s crucial because drug-resistant infections can be difficult and expensive to treat. Most of the farmworkers’ children, though, were covered under publicly subsidized health plans.

Of the non-farmworker households. most were African-American.

Since 2006, growth-promoting antibiotics in animals have been banned in the European Union. The EU outlawed the use of these drugs after reports of MRSA infections among swine workers and their children, including infants.

Researchers recommended that farmers take precautions to keep such outbreaks from occurring in North Carolina:

  • Minimize the use of antibiotics in hogs, especially if they’re not sick
  • Provide a place for employees to wash and to store their gear at work
  • Use more protective waste management systems

Devon Hall, an organizer with REACH (Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help), served as a liaison into the area. “The concentration of CAFOs is not a mistake in Duplin County,” he said. “It overlaps with a history of slavery, the path of least resistance, a place without a voice. But that’s home to us.”

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