Israeli Scientists Find New Strain of MRSA Bacteria Spreading in Gaza City

Antibiotic-resistant bug may spread through cats, say researchers.

A joint initiative by Israeli and Palestinian scientists has identified that what is thought to be a unique strain of the MRSA bacterium is becoming common in Gaza City.

Dr. Gili Regev-Yochay, a physician participating in the project and a researcher at the infectious disease unit at Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer, said: "We found that the bacterium is transmitted very rapidly in Gaza. At first we thought it came from a European volunteer and spread because of the overcrowding, but genetic markers of the Gaza bacterium make us believe that it's a different strain. We assume it developed resistance to antibiotics in some unique process that occurred in Gaza."

In recent years, the international medical establishment has become increasingly preoccupied with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, like MRSA. It is not enough that medical institutions take preventive measures against antibiotic-resistant bacteria, because it has become clear that they no longer attack only in the hospital setting but are also liable to spread in the general community.

The MRSA bacterium, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, is liable to become very aggressive. In September 1999, four children in the Chicago area allegedly died suddenly of toxic shock after coming into contact with MRSA in the community, without having been hospitalized. The virulent strain called USA300, which has become one of the most aggressive bacteria and is known as a "superbug," has been identified in several individuals in Israel but there have been no outbreaks like those reported in the United States.

'Not the virulent strain'

In the course of the Israeli-Palestinian research some 600 Gaza residents were tested - 300 children and 300 of their parents. Nose swabs were collected and the specimens transported to Sheba Medical Center. Scientists identified the MRSA bacterium in 15 percent of those tested, but also noted that it was not the virulent USA300 strain. It was, rather, a strain that has been identified in European hospitals, but in Gaza it is present in the general community. This strain, which tend to cause skin abscesses and infections was not identified in the West Bank in subsequent testing.

The researchers also noted a connection between the risk of contagion and having a pet cat. "The bacterium is liable to be transmitted from person to person via animals, and our findings raise the suspicion that there's a connection between the spread of the bacterium and the many cats in Gaza," said Regev-Yochay, who is also the director of infectious diseases at the Gertner Institute for Epidemiology and Health Policy Research.

In the next stage, research will be carried out among families to explore the long-term ramifications for people who tested positive, specifically to discover whether they are at greater risk of skin infections and hospitalizations. At the same time, the scientists are working to map the genetics of the Gaza strain of MRSA together with researchers from Harvard University.

The joint Palestinian-Israeli research group was established in January 2009 during Operation Cast Lead with the help of Dr. Meir Raz of Maccabi Health Services and Dr. Mohanad Daana, a Maccabi and Hadassah University Hospital physician, with assistance from Prof. Mordechai Shani, the founder of the Gertner Institute and a 2009 Israel Prize winner.

It consists of 30 members, including family physicians and pediatricians, and infectious disease specialists from central Israel, East Jerusalem and clinics in Bethlehem, Ramallah, Nablus and Gaza. Dr. Ezzeldeen Abu al-Aish of the University of Toronto, whose three daughters were killed during Operation Cast Lead by a missile fired at his home, is also a member of the project.

Alon Ron