Pig heart valve disease passed onto worker

TWO piggery workers have survived a potentially deadly disease of the heart valves after contracting a bug from animals bound for the abattoir.

Doctors at Canberra Hospital have treated a 46-year-old woman and a 58-year-old man, both from NSW, for fevers, sweating and severe weight loss caused by endocarditis, a serious condition where bacteria settle on the heart valves and spread infection throughout the body. The woman required a heart valve replacement to survive.

The bacterium, Streptococcus suis, is common in pigs and can transfer to humans through contact with live or dead pigs, though exactly how is unknown.

It has taken a heavy toll in the industry, most recently in 2005, when 215 Chinese butchers and meat processors became infected, killing more than half of them.

Only two cases had previously been reported in Australia, one in 1993 and a second in April last year, when a Melbourne meat processor, 41, developed toxic shock syndrome from it.

An infectious diseases physician at Canberra Hospital, Karina Kennedy, said that with four reported cases, the strain was emerging as a serious hazard for piggery workers. "These cases show that it is an occupational hazard in Australian piggeries, with potential public health, animal health and medico-legal implications," Dr Kennedy said in the Medical Journal of Australia.

The journal has detailed the latest cases, including how the woman developed fatigue and anorexia, and lost 20 kilograms before she was diagnosed in October 2006, and had to have her damaged aortic valve replaced. The man, who was from the same unnamed NSW town, received drug treatment after going to the hospital in January with headache, fevers, neck stiffness and confusion.

Paul Seale, a professor of clinical pharmacology at Sydney University, said the cases should serve as a warning. "We need occupational health and safety experts to go into these piggeries and rigorously examine ways in which the workers can be better protected from this exposure before it happens again." October 6, 2008