A method that assesses bacterial spatial dissemination was explored. It measures microbial genotypes (defined by electrophoretic patterns or EP), host, location (farm), interfarm Euclidean distance, and time. Its proof of concept (construct and internal validity) was evaluated using a dataset that included 113 Staphylococcus aureus EPs from 1126 bovine milk isolates collected on 23 farms between 1988 and 2005.
Construct validity was assessed by comparing results based on the interfarm Euclidean distance (a spatially explicit measure) and those produced by the (non-spatial) interfarm number of isolates reporting the same EP. The distance associated with EP spread correlated with the interfarm number of isolates/EP (r = .59, P < 0.02). Internal validity was estimated by comparing results obtained with different versions of the same indices. Concordance was observed between: (a) EP distance (estimated microbial dispersal over space) and EP speed (distance/year, r = .72, P < 0.01), and (b) the interfarm number of isolates/EP (when measured on the basis of non-repeated cow testing) and the same measure as expressed by repeated testing of the same animals (r = .87, P < 0.01). Three EPs (2.6% of all EPs) appeared to be super-spreaders: they were found in 26.75% of all isolates. Various indices differentiated local from spatially disseminated infections and, within the local type, infections suspected to be farm-related were distinguished from cow-related ones.
Findings supported both construct and internal validity. Because 3 EPs explained 12 times more isolates than expected and at least twice as many isolates as other EPs did, false negative results associated with the remaining EPs (those erroneously identified as lacking spatial dispersal when, in fact, they disseminated spatially), if they occurred, seemed to have negligible effects. Spatial analysis of laboratory data may support disease surveillance systems by generating hypotheses on microbial dispersal ability.