The worst fears of U.S. health officials appear to have been realized.
A Department of Defense document reveals that bacteria that cannot be killed by existing antibiotics has shown up in the U.S. for the first time. The patient is a 49-year old woman in Pennsylvania.
The woman, treated at a military installation for a urinary tract infection, was infected with a strain of E. coli that has been shown to be resistant to nearly all drugs. What makes the strain so scary is that it includes the so-called “super bug,” something called mcr-1.
In addition, the bacteria has a total of 15 genes that provide antibiotic resistance and can move easily from one germ to another.
Not sure where it came from
The authors of the report said the patient reported no travel outside the U.S. in the past five months. They write that it is unclear where the mcr-1 got here. Researchers have done extensive testing of all other E. coli samples they have encountered but have not found any traces. However, they concede they have only been testing for three weeks.
In a statement, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf said the state health department is working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to track down the source.
“We are taking the emergence of this resistance gene very seriously and we will take necessary actions to prevent mcr-1 from becoming a widespread problem with potentially serious consequences,” Wolf said. "The safety of Pennsylvanians is our utmost priority.”
The emergence of a super bug resistant to all drugs may have its roots in an over abundance of antibiotics. Health officials have warned for years that doctors were prescribing too many of the drugs, which allows the germs they fight to gradually build up an immunity.
Even before the confirmed arrival of the mcr-1, a report by the CDC found at least 2 million people in the U.S. become infected each year with bacteria that are increasingly harder to contain with antibiotics. The report said at least 23,000 people die each year as a direct result of these infections. Many more people die from other conditions that were complicated by an antibiotic-resistant infection.
Scientists say drug resistance is not limited to changes inside a person taking antibiotics. They say the resistance also takes place in the environment.
Olya Keen, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at UNC Charlotte, completed research last year that pointed a finger at treatments used to clean wastewater that she says may actually be making the problem worse.