'Big Chicken': The Medical Mystery That Traced Back To Slaughterhouse Workers

Maryn McKenna | NPR | September 10, 2017

Reimert Ravenholt, a physician at the Seattle Department of Public Health, was puzzled. It was the winter of 1956, and for weeks now, local doctors had been calling him, describing blue-collar men coming into their offices with hot, red rashes and swollen boils running up their arms. The men were feverish and in so much pain they had to stay home from work, sometimes for weeks.

The puzzle was not what was afflicting them. That was easy to establish: It was Staphylococcus aureus, or staph, a common cause of skin infections. Ravenholt happened to have a lot of experience with staph. He was the health department's chief of communicable diseases, the person who recognized and tracked down outbreaks, and for the entire previous year, he had been dealing with a staph epidemic in Seattle's hospitals. The organism had infected 1,300 women immediately after they gave birth, and more than 4,000 newborn babies, killing 24 mothers and children. It was a dreadful episode.

The thing that was keeping Ravenholt up at night now was not the cause of this apparent new outbreak: It was the victims. Medicine already knew that staph could spread rapidly through a hospital, carried unknowingly by health care workers as they went from patient to patient. But outside of hospitals, it was equally taken for granted that staph infections occurred individually and by happenstance. Unless there was an explicit health care connection — a shared nurse or doctor, a crib in a nursery shared by many other newborns — there was no reason to suppose two staph cases were linked...