TAMPA, Fla., July 20 (UPI) -- A strain of bacteria known to resist a last-resort antibiotic spread through neighborhoods and waterways during a 2014 sewer break, a finding researchers say should raise concern that such bugs are showing up with increasing frequency outside hospitals.
Researchers at the University of South Florida found vancomycin-resistant enterococci was present in sewage water that flowed through neighborhoods in St. Petersburg and into Boca Ciego Bay, suggesting antibiotic-resistant bacteria are present in sewage that needs upkeep and improvement, according to a study published in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology,.
"The spread of pathogens with high levels of vancomycin resistance beyond hospitals and into the community is a public health threat," researchers write in the study. "While further studies are needed to better define risks, knowing these pathogens are in Tampa Bay sewage is an important development."
The researchers sampled water in the area for seven weeks after the spill from a broken sewer line resulted in about 500,000 gallons of untreated sewage being released. VRE was detected for about two weeks after the spill.
While hospitals and medical facilities have dealt with VRE, its presence in raw sewage -- and its ability to spread through accidents researchers say are endemic of an aging infrastructure desperate for repairs -- is a problem.
"While we have known that raw sewage contains many disease-causing bacteria, this experience tells us that sewage and fecal pollution also carry vancomycin-resistant bacteria," Dr. Valerie Harwood, a professor at the University of South Florida, said in a press release. "Most VRE are confined to hospitals, but detecting them in waters of the Tampa Bay community is quite concerning. People need to be aware of what may be entering the water after heavy rains, accidental spills, or after intentional sewage releases."