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Zoo Elephant With MRSA Infects Caretakers

CDC Says It's the First Suspected Transmission of MRSA From an Animal to Human Caretakers at a Zoo
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

March 5, 2009 -- An elephant calf that apparently caught an antibiotic-resistant staph infection from a San Diego zoo caretaker passed the infection to more than a dozen other zoo caretakers, the CDC says.

The CDC says the incident marks the first reported case of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, in an elephant and the first suspected transmission of the bug from an animal to human caretakers at a zoo.

The CDC, in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, says the calf got the superbug from a human caretaker. In January 2008, officials found that three zoo caretakers, along with the calf, had MRSA skin infection, and an investigation was launched.

The MMWR says the probe identified two additional confirmed cases, 15 suspected cases, and three people who were carriers of MRSA but had no signs of skin infection; all were caretakers of the animal.

The elephant calf had been separated from its mother and hand-reared by zoo caretakers about a month after its birth. The calf had other health problems, and was euthanized on Feb. 4 because treatments for its ailments were not effective, the CDC says.

The people infected with MRSA all had direct contact with the elephant calf, or its immediate environment.

Eleven other elephants in the herd, including the calf's mother, tested negative for MRSA.

Some of the caretakers had fed the calf, others had bathed it or groomed it, played with it, or given it oral medication.

The MMWR says in an editorial note that MRSA skin infections have become a substantial community problem in recent years, and have been reported in animals as well as in people. It's been known that MRSA in people can be of animal origin, and that the infection can be fatal.

The CDC issued recommendations for preventing MRSA transmission in zoo settings, including:

  • training workers about risks of infection and what they should do to prevent them
  • performing proper hand hygiene before and after animal contact
  • using personal protective equipment when working with ill animals
  • cleaning and disinfecting contaminated equipment and surfaces

The CDC says animals aren't a major source of MRSA infections in people.

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