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Facemask use can reduce hog workers’ exposure to MRSA: study

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Baltimore — Hog farm workers who regularly wear facemasks on the job may significantly protect themselves and those in their households from exposure to the antibiotic-resistant bacteria Staphylococcus aureus, according to a recent study conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Researchers tracked 101 industrial hog operation workers in North Carolina and 79 members of their households for four months. Participants completed questionnaires and provided nasal swab samples every two weeks. Findings showed that workers who wore facemasks at least 80 percent of the time were 50 percent to 70 percent less likely to exhibit strains of S. aureus in their nasal swabs. The swabs of household members were 80 percent to 90 percent less likely to contain such strains.

Pigs on industrial farms are raised in close quarters and fed antibiotics, increasing the prevalence of livestock-related bacterial strains. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates show that methicillin-resistant S. aureus, a particularly dangerous strain of the bacteria also known as MRSA, triggers 80,461 serious infections – 11,285 of which are fatal – among people annually.

“Facemasks and other personal protective equipment could be effective in reducing occupational exposure to livestock-associated S. aureus and preventing the spread of these bacteria to workers and their families,” Christopher Heaney, senior author and Johns Hopkins associate professor of environmental health and engineering, said in a Dec. 13 press release.

Although some federal regulations require certain farm operators to furnish respirators for workers exposed to harmful dusts, gases, smoke or sprays, the researchers note that the regulations may not always protect workers exposed to animal microbes. Further, the researchers suggest that possible alternatives to facemasks are needed.

“When workers are issued facemasks, they may find it hard to breathe adequately while wearing the masks, especially when doing strenuous tasks in hot conditions,” Heaney said in the release.

The study was published online Dec. 13 in Environmental Health Perspectives.

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