Medical scientists around the world are alarmed that some strains of common bacteria in China have developed resistance to an antibiotic that is the treatment of “last resort.” The new strains of bacteria, often called “superbugs,” can resist all other modern antibiotics used today. That means people who contract a superbug infection, even in small or minor wounds, could die as result.
Just One Treatment For Superbugs
The only drug today that can still attack superbugs is Colistin. It’s actually an older form of antibiotic that fell out of common use years ago because it produced too many troubling side effects. However, when new super-strains of infectious bacteria began resisting modern antibiotics, reverting back to Colistin has been an effective treatment — in fact, the only treatment.
The MCR-1 Gene
Scientists have long feared that they would eventually confront a superbug that could defeat Colistin – and now it has happened. The real culprit in this scenario is not a particular bacterium itself, but rather a specific gene called MCR-1. This is a gene which attaches itself to bacteria, and which can transfer from one strain to another.
In China, strains of the common bacteria E.coli have been identified to carry MCR-1, which not only makes them superbugs, but creates a terrifying infection extremely resistant to treatment.
How It Happened
The problem originated mostly on Chinese pig farms. Farmers in China have been injecting pigs and other livestock with Colistin to speed up growth and enable animals to produce higher percentage-weights of meat. While Colistin has been used in rare occasion on humans – only when all other antibiotics have failed — Chinese farmers have been injecting millions of farm animals with the drug.
This has given E.coli ample opportunity to develop resistance to Colistin and turn into the Chinese superbug that scared the worldwide media. If this new super-strain of E.coli finds its way into the human population, treating this infection may be impossible.
Chinese Superbug Still Limited In Scope
The good news is that MCR-1 carrying E. coli have been found in only about 1% of E.coli samples taken so far, and also in 1% of the common Klebsiella pneumoniae bacterium. On the other hand, even this tiny sampling has made scientists around the world deeply concerned.
Lance Price, a microbiologist and director of the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center at George Washington University, called the 1% samples “pretty substantial.”
“One percent doesn’t sound huge, but for something that we didn’t know about a little more than a year ago”, Dr. Price recently told Scientific American.
Chinese authorities have now moved to ban the use of Colistin for agricultural. It will be phased out on April 1. The drug will still be available for use in China, but only for human treatment. International observers say that Chinese authorities have recognized the serious consequences of a free-wheeling attitude toward use of antibiotics on the farm.
The question is, will the current action be enough or has the new “superbug genie” already been let out of the bottle.
Potential of Human Infection
Some cases of MRC-1 carrying bacteria infection have been found among people in Chinese hospitals. China also has a considerable problem with another kind of superbug known as CREs, which stands for “carbapenem resistant Enterbacteriaceae.” This is a bacteria of the gut that can resist an entire family of antibiotics called carbapenems.
The greater problem with highly resistant forms of bacteria is that they care little about international borders. It would be a simple matter for a super-strain of bacterium (like this new Chinese superbug) to find its way out of the country and infect any population site around the world.