The Most Dreaded, Antibiotic-Resistant Superbug Just Reached The U.S.

This bug can defeat our “last resort” antibiotic

Courtesy Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

In a development that the head U.S. public health official is grimly forecasting as “the end of the road” for antibiotics, a strain of the most fearsome antibiotic-resistant superbug was found in the urine of a 49-year-old Pennsylvania woman. This bacteria could presage a time when simple medical procedures and diagnoses become dire and life-threatening (a return to the days before penicillin was discovered in 1928).

In a paper just published in Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, researchers said the development “heralds the emergence of a truly pan-drug resistant bacteria.” The superbug had previously been found popping up in China and parts of Europe, mostly in pigs, but this is the first appearance in the United States.

This particular E. coli strain has displayed resistance to colistin, which has been called our antibiotic “of last resort.” Colistin, previously abandoned because of its potential for kidney damage, has been the only drug that seems to resist a dreaded family of bacteria called CRE. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has listed CRE as one of our most severe public health threats in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. The bacteria kills about half the patients who are affected.

Few details have been released about the woman whose urine turned up positive for the E. coli. She was transferred from a local hospital to Walter Reed Medical Center, where Defense Department scientists made the alarming discovery. The CDC and the Pennsylvania Department of Public Health then mobilized, looking for others the patient may have affected, and possible other cases in her health care facility.

The Obama administration has been focusing on ramping up our defenses against antibiotic-resistant bacteria since late in 2014. Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the CDC, said then that these bugs cause (conservatively) 2 million illnesses in the U.S. each year and 23,000 deaths. But despite the government resource-allocation, superbugs continue to mutate and spread at a brisk clip.

“It basically shows us that the end of the road isn’t very far away for antibiotics,” Frieden told the Washington Post yesterday, in response to news of the Pennsylvania woman, “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.”

It’s indeed an alarming prospect.

UPDATE: The USDA will soon announce that strains of the same superbug were recently found in a slaughtered pig, according to Maryn Mckenna at National Geographic.

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