For the first time, researchers have found a person in the United States carrying bacteria resistant to antibiotic of last resort, an alarming development that the top U.S. public health official says could signal “the end of the road” for antibiotics.
The antibiotic-resistant strain was found last month in the urine of a 49-year-old Pennsylvania woman. Defense Department researchers determined that she carried a strain of E. coli resistant to the antibiotic colistin, according to a study published Thursday in Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, a publication of the American Society for Microbiology. The authors wrote that the discovery “heralds the emergence of a truly pan-drug resistant bacteria.”
Colistin is the antibiotic of last resort for particularly dangerous types of superbugs, including a family of bacteria known as carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae, or CRE, which health officials have dubbed “nightmare bacteria.” In some instances, these superbugs kill up to 50 percent of patients who become infected. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has called CRE among the country’s most urgent public health threats.
While health officials said the case in Pennsylvania, by itself, is not cause for panic, they worry that the antibiotic-resistant gene found in the bacteria, known as mcr-1, could spread to other types of bacteria that can already evade other types of antibiotics.
But this is the first time this colistin-resistant strain has been found in a person in the United States.
Last year alarm bells went of when Chinese and British researchers reported finding the colistin-resistant strain in pigs and people in China. The deadly strain was later discovered in Europe, Africa, South America and Canada.
“It basically shows us that the end of the road isn’t very far away for antibiotics — that we may be in a situation where we have patients in our intensive-care units, or patients getting urinary tract infections for which we do not have antibiotics,” CDC Director Tom Frieden said in an interview Thursday.
Plague causing germs are not unusual. Last year, four people and a dog in Colorado were the first instance of person-to-person transmission of the Bubonic Plague in the United States in 90 years.
While the fear of Bubonic Plague is diminished because of antibiotic, other diseases brings much concern. On March 24 a report by Thomson Reuters Foundation said that “over the next 35 years, multidrug-resistant tuberculosis will kill 75 million people and could cost the global economy a cumulative $16.7 trillion – the equivalent of the European Union’s annual output,” a UK parliamentary group said last month.
If left untackled, the spread of drug-resistant TB superbugs threatens to shrink the world economy by 0.63 percent annually, the UK All Party Parliamentary Group on Global Tuberculosis (APPG TB) said, urging governments to do more to improve research and cooperation.
So is the end near? While superbugs have been on the menu of end-times warnings by scientists, such incidents of a resistant superbug has been going on for several years.
Health officials said the case in Pennsylvania, by itself, is not cause for panic. The strain found in the woman is treatable with some other antibiotics. In other words, while the superbug-beast is on its way, it will take some time to arrive in full force. In other words, one will never know when this microscopic beast will hit the saints and scientists do not believe in date-setting.