This week, the detection of a new superbug in the United States has raised alarm bells among the public and scientific communities.
The uproar is over the surfacing of bacteria that is resistant to an old antibiotic, which came to light when a 49-year old woman from Pennsylvania sought treatment for an infection and had the drug-resistant superbug detected in her urine.
The bacteria in this particular case was a strain of E.coli. What doctors found alarming was that it was resistant to colistin, an antibiotic with a long history that is usually reserved as a last-ditch attempt at a cure when nothing else works.
The woman was not untreatable and reports indicate that doctors did eventually find a way to combat her symptoms.
The presence of various genes in bacteria can render them resistant to a variety of drug treatments.
In this case, the gene responsible for making the E.coli bacteria a potential super bug was one labeled MCR-1. The apparently scariness of MCR-1 is that it sits on what is known as a plasmid in an organism, which is a free-floating snippet of DNA that bacteria can easily share. Because it’s so easily transmittable, MCR-1 can very easily be spread to other organisms, including other sickness-causing bacteria, making them resistant to treatment with colistin as well.
What is colistin? It’s an old and powerful drug that’s part of a group of antibiotics called the polymyxins.
It was first discovered in the 1940s, but its use wasn’t promoted because it has highly toxic side effects which can include everything from an upset stomach and itchiness to mental confusion and psychosis.
Looking for better ways to treat infections, scientists managed to come up with other antibiotics for use, but since bacteria have been evolving and finding ways of becoming resistant to these other treatments, doctors are now turning to colistin as a last resort for some treatments.
Essentially, what doctors are in an uproar about at the moment is that, if a gene like MCR-1 manages to jump to other organisms and inhabit them, we could be up a creek without a paddle when looking for effective treatments once that happens. It could be daunting. No one wants to walk around with a constant urinary tract infection, let alone experience the resurgence of other more serious afflictions that could kill us.
According to a report on CNN.com, each year in the United States at least 2 million people become infected with some type of bacteria that can’t be beaten with most antibiotics. Sadly, of those millions infected, around 23,000 people die annually as a result, according to the CDC.
As CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden stated recently at a press conference on the matter:
“The medicine cabinet is empty for some patients. It is the end of the road unless we act urgently.”
What can we do, as members of the general public? Always take prescription medications until the end, and this will reduce the chance of the bacteria that is causing the infection from becoming resistant to the drug being taken to combat it.
Don’t ingest anyone else’s medication to treat your problem as it may not apply to your current ailment and you won’t be taking a full round of medicine, which means there may not be enough there to kill the bacteria inside you. This gives it the chance of becoming a superbug.
And the simplest advice as always is, wash your hands as often as you can. Especially upon leaving the hospital.