News & Politics

First Case of Antibiotic-Resistant Superbug Found in the United States (Video)

Our reliance on antibiotics has finally created a superbug that kills up to half the people who are infected with it.

Photo Credit: Darren Baker/Shutterstock

The first case of a superbug resistant to “last resort antibiotics” appeared in the United States last month, prompting Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Tom Frieden Thursday to warn it could spell “the end of the road for antibiotics unless we act more urgently.”

According to a report by the Department of Defense, the bacteria, found in the urine sample of a Pennsylvania woman, is a strand of E. coli carrying MCR-1, a genetic mutation that makes it resistant to colistin, one of several “last resort antibiotics” used to treat infections that prove impervious to more standard forms of treatment. The CDC listed CRE—Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae, the family that contains the colistin-resistant E. coli, among other superbugs—as one of the most dire public health threats facing the country. CRE superbugs kill up to half the patients who are affected.

Even more alarming, the MCR-1 gene can transfer resistance to other bacterium through small bits of DNA called plasmids, meaning the gene can pass between species of bacterium as opposed to remaining contained to one species.

“The fear is that this could spread to other bacteria and create the bacterium that would be resistant to everything,” Beth Bell, director of the National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases, told ABC News.

Scientists in China first discovered the MCR-1 gene in November. Since then the mutation has been found in Europe and Canada, and now for the first time, the United States. Health officials in the U.S. screened 949 animal samples, finding the one case of colostin-reistant E. coli in a pig’s intestine. The sample also carried an additional resistance pattern, ASSuT, which makes it invulnerable to ampicilin, steptomycin, sulfas and tetracycline.

Food-producing animals raised in crowded conditions on factory farms are “of particular concern” in spreading drug-resistant bacteria, in part because of the high volume of antibiotics now used on such livestock. “Antibiotics must be used judiciously in humans and animals because both uses contribute to the emergence, persistence, and spread of resistant bacteria,” the CDC warns. 

Antibiotics are also overprescribed in humans; one study indicated as many as one-third of all antibiotic prescriptions are superfluous. The World Health Organization warns that drug resistance “can come from the overuse and misuse of antibiotics and from the spread of resistant strains among people, in communities and across countries.”

Steven Roach, the food safety program director at the Food Animal Concerns Trust, said the finding “shows that we are right on the verge of getting into the territory of routine bacterial infections being untreatable.”

“It underscores the failure of both the federal government and Congress, and the industry, to get a grasp of the problem,” Roach continued. “We can’t continue to drag our feet on taking needed action.”

In 2014, President Barack Obama signed an executive order to combat the spread of superbugs including MRSA and multi-drug-resistant tuberculoisis. The order established a task force between the Secretaries of Defense, Agriculture and Heath and Human Services to prevent the spread of drug-resistant bacteria and improve internal collaboration among the departments. Critics of the executive order say it does little to prevent the overuse of antibiotics in the agriculture and healthcare industries.

According to the CDC, at least 2 million people are infected by drug-resistant bacteria each year, leading to at least 23,000 deaths. The CDC's Frieden warned “the medicine cabinet is empty for some patients.”

“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,” Frieden added.

Watch CBS News coverage of this developing story:

Elizabeth Preza is a staff writer for Raw Story. Follow her on Twitter @lizacisms.

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