June 18, 2012 - 12:00am

Amid a fresh round of hostilities along Israel's border with the Gaza Strip, Israeli and Palestinian scientists are continuing joint efforts to combat a potentially lethal bacterium that is spreading in Gaza City.

The research group has recently identified a unique strain of Methicillin - resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA), a particularly aggressive antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which has become common in Gaza, the Israeli daily Ha'aretz reported on Monday.

The international medical community has funneled greater resources into researching ways of preventing MRSA since 1999, when four children died in Chicago after coming into contact with the bacteria in their community. Prior to these deaths, it was thought that the bacteria attacked only in hospital settings. Since then, the American virulent strain has been dubbed USA300, or "superbug."

It is unclear how many Palestinians have died to date as a result of contracting MRSA, but Dr. Gili Regev-Yochay, a physician participating in the joint project and a researcher at the infectious disease unit at the Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv, said the bacterium is "transmitting very rapidly" in Gaza.

"At first we thought it came from a European volunteer and spread because of the overcrowding, but genetic markers of the Gaza bacterium make us believe that it's a different strain," Regev-Yochay said.

"We assume it developed resistance to antibiotics in some unique process that occurred in Gaza," he said.

In the course of attempting to locate the source of the Gaza strain, Regev-Yochay and the team's 30 other members, which include pediatricians and infectious disease specialists from Israel, East Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank, tested some 600 Gaza residents -- 300 children and 300 of their parents, according to Ha'aretz.

Fifteen percent tested positive for the MRSA bacterium, though the strain is unique to Gaza and is not as aggressive as the USA300 strain, but is rather a strain that has been identified in European hospitals and is present in Gaza's general population.

The researchers have found a connection between the risk of contagion Gaza strain and the number of pet and street felines in the coastal enclave.

"The bacterium is liable to be transmitted from person to person via animals, and our findings raise the suspicion that there's a connection between the spread of the bacterium and the many cats in Gaza," said Regev-Yochay.

He said that the next phase of the research will focus on families and will aim to explore the long-term implications for Gazans who tested positive. In parallel, the scientists are mapping the genetics of the Gaza strain in a joint project with Harvard University researchers, according to the report.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017