For the first time, a U.S. citizen has been diagnosed with an antibiotic-resistant superbug. The case was detailed on Thursday by the U.S. Department of Defense and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) at the National Press Club in Washington.

The infected patient is a 49-year-old woman from Pennsylvania who showed the presence of a rare kind of E. Coli infection through a routine laboratory test. The bacteria showed resistance even to Colistin, an antibiotic used as a last resource when everything else has failed, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Superbug found for the first time in the U.S.
A much-feared superbug gene has been found for the first time in the United States. Credit: NBC News

A sample was transferred to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for further tests, where the bacteria was found in her urine. How the woman could have gotten the bacteria is yet unknown.

The CDC and the Pennsylvania Department of Health began to investigate the possible source of infection and to trace contacts the patient may have had to see if there are more people infected. As for the woman, she was treated and release as she did not present other medical problems related to the bacteria, as reported by CNN.

Other findings

Another trace of an antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the same E. Coli found in the woman, was found in a single sample from a pig intestine. Also, the U.S. Worldwide health authorities started to look for some infections after last November, when China first reported the mutated E. Coli present in the country. After that, the bacteria was found in Europe, Canada and more recently in the U.S.

Scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) first took on a proactive study that used a modified technique to look for the mutated bacteria in food animals. Researchers used a targeted and extremely sensitive method to examine whole bacterial population found in intestinal samples from the animals, according to a statement from the HHS.

In the still-ongoing study, researchers analyzed the samples by exposing them to colistin at a concentration that would kill sensitive bacteria and allow any bacteria carrying the mutated E. Coli to survive. Out of 949 sample tested, one was found in a pig intestinal sample.

The gene on a plasmid

In addition to the danger of having an antibiotic-resistant bacteria, researchers found through the DNA sequence that the strain of the mutated bacteria was on a plasmid, a small piece of the DNA that is not part of a bacterium’s chromosome. Plasmids are capable of moving from one bacterium to another which could lead to the spreading of the antibiotic resistance between bacterial species.

However, further tests were held by the HHS and the FDA to determine if there were any other bacterias with the mutation but none was found. The team used whole genome sequencing technology to search for the gene in Salmonella, E. Coli and Klebsiella taken from human and retail meat sources. More than 44,000 Salmonella and 9,000 E. Coli/Shigella isolates were tested and did not show any mutated genes.

A growing problem

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the antibiotic resistance occurs when a bacteria change in response so the use of these medicines. Once resistant, these are harder to treat than non-resistant bacterias.

One of the consequences could be higher medical costs, prolonged hospital stays and increased mortality in the patients. Just in the European Union, drug-resistance bacteria are estimated to cause 25,000 deaths and cost more than $1.5 billion every year in healthcare expenses and productivity losses.

The antibiotics have been used so widely and for so long that the infectious organisms the antibiotics are designed to kill have adapted to them, making the drugs less effective and in some cases inefficient, the CDC wrote in a statement.

This resistance is increasingly rising across the world, which can threaten the ability to treat common infectious and diseases. In countries where the antibiotics can be bought without a prescription, emergence and spread of resistance are worse.

“The medicine cabinet is empty for some patients,” said CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden at the National Press Club in Washington. “It is the end of the road unless we act urgently.”

WHO recommendations

As for what is left to do, the WHO assured that there are several steps that can be taken at all levels of society to reduce the impact and limit the spread of resistance. This resistance occurs naturally, but with the misuse, the cycle is at a fast turn.

People could just prevent infections by regularly washing their hands, practicing food hygiene, avoiding close contact with sick people and keeping vaccinations up to date. Also, they should always only use antibiotics when prescribed and take the full prescription.

For health workers and pharmacist, the WHO also recommends to prevent infections by ensuring hand, instruments and environment are clean. When they are suspicious of an infection, test and confirm and in as well prescribe and dispense antibiotics only when they are truly needed.

People in the agricultural sector could also help prevent antibiotic resistance by ensuring that the antibiotics given to animals, including food-producing and companion animals, are only used to treat infectious diseases and under veterinary supervision.

Although currently there are new antibiotics being developed, none of them are expected to be effective against the most dangerous forms of antibiotic-resistance bacteria, WHO added. The organization assures this is a global problem which requires worldwide efforts.

Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services