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"Superbug" Found in Iowa Wildlife

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IOWA CITY, Iowa - An antibiotic resistant "superbug" has been found by University of Iowa researchers in a surprising location: wildlife.

The potentially deadly bacterial strain of methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, known as MRSA, was identified in two rabbits and a migrating bird in the study, led by the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the UI College of Public Health.

Staph infections of the skin can be treated with antibiotics, but those resistant to the drugs can be deadly.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, MRSA was responsible for an estimated 94,000 life-threatening infections and 18,650 deaths in 2005.

Tara Smith, UI associate professor of epidemiology, said previous research has found MRSA in swine and pets, as well as a few cases in the wild, such as dolphins and chimpanzees, but this was the first time a broad species distribution was studied in one geographical area.

Researchers collected samples from 114 animals brought to the Wildlife Care Clinic at Iowa State University in Ames.

Of those, 2.6 percent were positive for MRSA. Smith noted that 1.5 percent of people are carriers.

"It can move all over," she said. "Animals can be reservoirs and transmit it to people."

The bacteria can also be found on doorknobs, desks, fitness center equipment and many other sites.

"It's all over," Smith said.

Still, researchers were surprised to find it carried in wildlife.

"It extends beyond your typical human environment: hospitals, gyms, homes," Smith said. "It can also be in the wild environment."

How it was transmitted is unknown.

Because the animals were brought to the clinic, the researchers did not know where they had lived; for example, near a hospital where the infections are often acquired, or a farm where antibiotics are used.

One of the rabbits had a wound, but no others showed symptoms of illness, Smith said.

To the average person, the findings might not have immediate significance.

But Smith said people with wounds or compromised immune systems should take precautions, such as showering after spending time at the lake.

Potential also exists for the strains to evolve and spread to people or other wildlife, she said.

The next step in the research would involve testing animals where they live in the wild, but Smith said no further studies have been funded at this time.

Results are published in the Journal of Wildlife Diseases.

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