BACKGROUND: Within the current worldwide epidemic of community-acquired Staphylococcus aureus infections, attention has focused on the role of methicillin-resistant strains. We characterize methicillin-susceptible strains that also contribute to this epidemic.
METHODS: We tracked cultures from abscess specimens submitted to the microbiology laboratory at St. Louis Children's Hospital and examined Panton-Valentine leukocidin (PVL) genes in methicillin-susceptible S. aureus (MSSA) isolates. We further characterized some isolates by multilocus sequence typing, pulsed-field gel electrophoresis, antibiotic susceptibility, accessory gene regulator (agr) allele, and presence of the arcA gene of the arginine catabolic mobile element.
RESULTS: From 1999 to 2007, we detected a 250-fold increase in cultures of abscesses yielding methicillin-resistant S. aureus (MRSA) and a 5-fold increase in abscess cultures yielding MSSA. MSSA isolates from abscesses and wounds were more likely to encode PVL than isolates from other sources. In contrast to PVL-negative isolates of MSSA, which were genetically diverse, PVL-positive isolates were predominantly multilocus sequence typing type 8 and agr type 1. More than half of PVL-positive MSSA isolates were resistant to erythromycin and susceptible to clindamycin with the absence of inducible resistance, a pattern uncommon in PVL-negative MSSA but frequent in the USA300 clone of MRSA. In addition, pulsed-field gel electrophoresis of PVL-positive MSSA strains revealed the USA300 pattern.
CONCLUSIONS: In addition to methicillin-resistant strains, the current epidemic of S. aureus infections includes infections caused by methicillin-susceptible strains that are closely related genetically and share phenotypic characteristics other than susceptibility to methicillin. These findings suggest that factors other than methicillin resistance are driving the epidemic.