The MRSA Map

Dr. Joan Casey

Green acres may not be the place to be.

When Joan Casey was a PhD student she started reading up on the idea that antibiotic use in our farm animals might be making us sick. Research over in Europe told her that MRSA was traveling from pig farms to people, and she wanted to know if the same thing was happening here. Five years later, and now on staff at the UCSF School of Medicine, she believes it is.

Her research (on FRONTLINE) led to Pennsylvania farm country. Using data from about 160 million electronic records on about 450,000 patients in the region, her team found that (1) total MRSA from 2001 to 2009 went up every year, and by as much as 34% (2) people living closer to these farms and to the crop fields that are located nearby were about 38 percent more likely to have a MRSA infection than people living farther away, and (3) the people getting MRSA are not like the ones who used to get it. They’re not old and sick; they’re young and they’re healthy.

Casey’s team put together a map of their findings. Each red dot is the home address of a person that had a MRSA infection. The blue bits are the pig farms.

Now for the tricky part. Industrial farms are an easy target. We know they ply our food animals with antibiotics, not to cure disease, but because antibiotics accelerate growth. So you have a ready to slaughter animal in much quicker time thus saving owners money on feed and care, which in turn keeps the price of our (expensive protein) food down – just the way we like it.

But at what cost? Joan Casey says innocent children in rural Pennsylvania are getting hurt (google “MRSA infection” images) so you can eat cheap meat.

Sacrificing others so we can live comfortably is nothing new. The link between child labor, sweatshops, and affordable goods and clothing, for example, is well documented.

As population numbers rise and land and fresh water become scarce, the demand for cheap food will increase, implicitly egging on whatever our industrial farms can do to provide us with affordable meat. As if that isn’t enough, our new global inconvenient fact, climate change, portending even less arable land due to drought and flooding leading to food shortages, will put further pressure on this industry to cut corners.

Dr. Joan Casey has shown us where that leads. The question for us is whether we will follow.

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