Background: Strategies to prevent Staphylococcus aureus infection in hospitals focus on patient-to-patient transmission. We used whole-genome sequencing to investigate the role of colonized patients as the source of new S. aureus acquisitions, and the reliability of identifying patient-to-patient transmission using the conventional approach of spa typing and overlapping patient stay.
Methods: Over 14 months, all unselected patients admitted to an adult intensive care unit (ICU) were serially screened for S. aureus. All available isolates (n = 275) were spa typed and underwent whole-genome sequencing to investigate their relatedness at high resolution.
Results: Staphylococcus aureus was carried by 185 of 1109 patients sampled within 24 hours of ICU admission (16.7%); 59 (5.3%) patients carried methicillin-resistant S. aureus (MRSA). Forty-four S. aureus (22 MRSA) acquisitions while on ICU were detected. Isolates were available for genetic analysis from 37 acquisitions. Whole-genome sequencing indicated that 7 of these 37 (18.9%) were transmissions from other colonized patients. Conventional methods (spa typing combined with overlapping patient stay) falsely identified 3 patient-to-patient transmissions (all MRSA) and failed to detect 2 acquisitions and 4 transmissions (2 MRSA).
Conclusions: Only a minority of S. aureus acquisitions can be explained by patient-to-patient transmission. Whole-genome sequencing provides the resolution to disprove transmission events indicated by conventional methods and also to reveal otherwise unsuspected transmission events. Whole-genome sequencing should replace conventional methods for detection of nosocomial S. aureus transmission.
Keywords: Staphylococcus aureus transmission; adult; intensive care unit; spa typing; whole-genome sequencing.