New Antibiotic-Resistant Superbug Found: Should Everybody Panic?

By Andrew Moseman | August 13, 2010 4:59 pm

E_coliThe antibiotics-resistant superbug that emerged in South Asia appears to have claimed its first life. According to doctors who treated a man in Belgium, he went to a hospital in Pakistan after a car accident, and there he picked up the bacterial infection. While the man died back in June, his doctors announced today that he carried the superbug.

This new health scare intensified this week after researchers published a study in The Lancet Infectious Diseases characterizing “a new antibiotic resistance mechanism” in the U.K., India, and Pakistan. How bad is this “mechanism?”

It’s bad:

The problem isn’t a particular kind of bacteria. It’s a gene that encodes an enyzme called New Delhi metallo-lactamase-1 (NDM-1). Bacteria that carry it aren’t bothered by traditional antibiotics, or even the drugs known as carbapenems deployed against antibiotic-resistant microbes.

The NDM-1 gene is a special worry because it is found in plasmids — DNA structures that can easily be copied and then transferred promiscuously among different types of bacteria. These include Escherichia coli, the commonest cause of urinary tract infections, and Klebsiella pneumoniae, which causes lung and wound infections and is generated mainly in hospitals [AFP].

It’s no worse than what we had before:

Yes, NDM-1 is scary. But it’s not unprecedented.

There are numerous strains of antibiotic-resistant germs, and although they have killed many patients in hospitals and nursing homes, none have yet lived up to the “superbug” and “flesh-eating bacteria” hyperbole that greets the discovery of each new one. “They’re all bad,” said Dr. Martin J. Blaser, chairman of medicine at New York University Langone Medical Center. “Is NDM-1 more worrisome than MRSA? It’s too early to judge” [The New York Times].

The Los Angeles Times contends that the problem is not a serious problem for the West—at least not yet. The people in the most danger are patients in hospitals, The New York Times says—especially ones with weaker immune systems.

Could it happen anywhere?

India and Pakistan have developed some excellent hospitals and surgeons that provide medical care and surgical procedures, especially elective procedures, more cheaply than they are available in the West. But the overuse of antibiotics among the larger population leads to the development of resistance, and those organisms can make their way into even the best hospitals [Los Angeles Times].

Indians, however—cognizant of the bad press that comes with having a medical scare named after one’s capital city—have fought back against the idea that their practices brought on the emergence of a superbug.

“Several superbugs are surviving in nature and they have been reported from countries like Greece, Israel, the U.S., Britain, Brazil,” and elsewhere, V. M. Katoch, director general of the Indian Council of Medical Research in New Delhi told India Real Time. “It’s unfortunate that this new bug, which is an environmental thing, has been attached to a particular country” [Wall Street Journal].

Related Content:
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80beats: Red Meat Acts as Trojan Horse for Toxic Attacks By E. Coli

Image: USDA

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • Rhacodactylus

    Of Course, Panic is the appropriate reaction to anything new dammit.

  • tony

    Finally….a well balanced, scientific article on the issue…no wonder Discover is one of the most reputed magazines in Science. Great job!

  • wowlfer

    We need a genetically tailored bacteria like this to rid the world of religion. We would be far better off without it!

  • mike

    Maybe if doctors would stop prescribing antibiotics for a cut than maybe we wouldn’t have such a problem with superbugs. Religion isn’t the problem, people are. Plus knowing that the US only has 1 antibiotic left that hasn’t been used is a little bit ridiculous. Anybody with me?



  • Chris the Canadian

    I agree with you mike. Doctors prescribe anti-biotics for everything it seems. It’s not surprising to see bacteria fight back. They’ve been around a lot longer than we have and will be around when we are gone.

  • surge

    I agree with the comment on overly usage of antibiotics, though, I blame the patients consuming them without questioning or making an effort to find out the cons of it, just seeking quick relief. Harms of antibiotics are no doctors’ secret. And what with all those anti-bacterial hand wash and what not – give the bacteria some break from mutating.
    The bit on religion – religious people are the problem. It is religion that kills reasoning (which leads to thoughtless prescription and usage of antibiotics as well, to speak in the current context.)

  • tiger

    When was this article even published and how “up to date” is it???????

  • tiger

    nvm to my last ?

  • kw

    Do I understand correctly that we are not talking about a new species of bacteria, but a gene that allows any species of bacteria that causes some degree of harmful effects in humans to acquire immunity to all known antibiotics? That sounds much more alarming than saying this or that single, particular species has mutated into a form that has acquired antibiotic resistance. Can I panic now? Ah, if only the Reveres at Effect Measure hadn’t retired from blogging.

  • roy

    KW – I think the genetic-alteration thing is similar to what viruses do, which is use our living tissue to perpetuate their own genes, and even infilter them into our gene pool, to the point where we can even pass them on. Of course, most of the time it has no effect or is even beneficial.

    Although nature is diabolically clever, consider the fact that humans were able to nail this thing down so quickly, even if they don’t have a cure. I think human knowledge is advancing so quickly that we’re going to continue to outrun the bullet on this stuff.

  • kw

    Addendum: Maryn McKenna’s blog has an interesting write-up on NDM-1 and how it’s resistance gene is now found in the gram-negative bacteria which are already the most difficult bacteria for which to devise antibiotics.
    She also notes that most cases were not acquired through medical tourism and that there are community-acquired cases.

  • tiger

    D Browm i do not understand what you are saying to me it doesnt make sense but could u explain further

  • Ninna Desert

    The problem is that some people from Western countries go to India for surgery because it is cheaper. However some come back with the superbug infection and it is passed on here. This is why we should be concerned about it spreading to other countries.

  • Flavia Osawa

    The first answer is the best. Since it’s a long term condition, make it a habit of using it every night. It will take time to get rid of it but will also keep it away.


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