Any kind of disease outbreak is a problem, which is why hospitals are always careful to prevent them and to quickly respond if they do occur. The traditional methods of monitoring an outbreak though are not always that informative, so they may miss carriers or not recognize that they are all related to the one outbreak. Researchers at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, the University of Cambridge, and Cambridge University Hospitals have developed and successfully tested a new monitoring technique that uses genetic sequencing to follow the bacteria.
In this case the outbreak was of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a not uncommon staph infection. When it first broke out, there were 12 identified carriers of a staph infection, but only after the rapid sequencing was used was it confirmed that they were all the same infection. The researchers then found that the outbreak was actually twice as large as originally thought, but everyone was appropriately treated to stop the outbreak. Or so they thought. About two months after the last carrier left the Special Care Baby Unit, MRSA appeared again. With so much time between the outbreaks, one would expect them to be separate, but the sequencing found that it was the original outbreak continuing through a single, unknown carrier. Once that person was treated, the outbreak was finally eradicated.
This study, and unexpected situation, demonstrates the value of this sequencing technique for treating outbreaks. Before it can be implemented in multiple hospitals though, it will have to be automated so healthcare workers have are presented with understandable information.