Superbugs resistant to all antibiotics found in Europe for the first time
COPENHAGEN, Denmark – Just three weeks after Chinese academics discovered that superbugs had breached the last line of antibiotic defences for the first time, a patient in Denmark has become infected with an untreatable form of salmonella.
The Chinese team had warned that the hyper-resistant bugs were likely to spread fast, but experts said the speed at which it had travelled to Europe was extremely serious.
Until recently, colistin – a drug classed as “critical” to human medicine – was the only antibiotic to work after all others had failed.
But the first germs to become resistant to the drug were identified last month, and experts warned of the “inevitable” spread of uncontrollable superbugs which attack the blood and lungs.
The scientists discovered a mobile gene called MCR-1, which made bacteria such as E.coli, salmonella and germs which cause pneumonia, untreatable.
The gene was found to be easily transferrable to other types of bacteria, meaning it could spread quickly between animals and humans.
Scientists at the Technical University of Denmark started searching for signs of the MCR-1 gene in their own country as soon as they read the Chinese report.
Six samples were found: one in the blood of a sick patient, and five in imported chicken.
“This is a very alarming discovery,” said Professor Frank Møller Aarestrup, a microbiologist at the university. “It is something I had feared, but hoped I would not see.”
“I would be very much surprised if it was not in the UK already. It is a much bigger country than Denmark, with more travel and more food imports,” he added.
Professor Aarestrup said the Danish patient had suffered from a blood infection earlier this year, and in subsequent checks had tested positive for salmonella bacteria with the MCR-1 gene.
The patient’s name and current health status were not disclosed.
The professor said the bugs had probably come from China via imported meat, or been brought in by people travelling from the Far East.
Experts fear this is the start of a global epidemic of untreatable infections, according to the Daily Mail.
Dr Lance Price, of George Washington University in the US, who worked with the Danish team, said: “History shows that these mobile resistance genes can spread around the world quickly, silently riding in people, animals, and food.
“The news that MCR-1 has been discovered in Denmark suggests that this scenario is playing out in real time.
“We must act swiftly to contain the spread of colistin-resistant bacteria, or we will face increasing numbers of untreatable infections. Leaders from every nation should immediately implement a ban on the use of colistin in animal agriculture,” Dr Price added.
The Chinese Ministry of Agriculture has launched an immediate risk assessment of colistin use.
British expert Professor Mark Enright, a microbiologist at Manchester Metropolitan University, said that patients infected with such superbugs would have very few treatment options.
“Colistin is a top-shelf antibiotic – it is the antibiotic of last defence when nothing else works,” he said.
“This gene is going into bugs which are resistant to everything else, which is very worrying.
“If a patient is resistant there is not a lot you could do.”
Professor Enright said people are probably getting the bug by handling infected meat. He warned that once it got into hospitals, it would be very hard to control.
A major problem is that colistin is widely used in farming.
The more that antibiotics are used, whether in humans or animals, the easier it is for bacteria to evolve to become resistant against them.
Yet colistin was reportedly the fifth most-widely used antibiotic in European agriculture in 2010.
Dame Sally Davies, the British Government’s chief medical officer, has repeatedly warned of the disastrous consequences of antibiotic resistance, putting it on a par with terrorism and climate change.
She has called for a vast reduction in the use of antibiotics in farming, in order that drugs are not rendered useless in humans.
Last year she even proposed the slaughter of sick animals, rather than treating them with drugs.
Yet while many experts said they were alarmed at the findings, and called for urgent restrictions of the use of colistin drugs among animals, Professor Neil Woodford, head of Public Health England’s antimicrobial resistance unit, said that people should be reassured that “our current assessment is that the public health risk is very low.”