Antibiotic resistance is, in my Z-Pak-abusing opinion, one of the more harrowing threats to humanity: as we continue to chow down on the drugs for everything from life-threatening infections to mildly uncomfortable cases of sinusitis, scientists are warning that if we don't address the problem head-on by developing new antibiotics and cutting down on the overuse of existing ones, we'll soon be facing a post-antibiotic future where something like a scraped knee could be fatal. In May, a Pennsylvania woman was diagnosed with what was thought to be the first-known U.S. case of an E. Coli infection that's resistant to the last-resort antibiotic Colistin, but a report released yesterday revealed that the first such case was actually right here in NYC.
Researchers found the "superbug" MCR—which is actually a gene carried by gut bacteria such as E. Coli—in a bacterial sample from a patient treated in NYC last May. The company, JMI Laboratories, has spent the last two years testing thousands of bacteria samples from across the world, and found hundreds globally that were Colistin-resistant.
In the NYC and Pennsylvania cases, the bacteria were able to be treated with other antibiotics, but Colistin is typically the one doctors prescribe when all others have failed, even though it can lead to kidney damage. The concern now is that these bacteria will pass on their Colistin-resistant genetic material to germs that are already immune to "front-line" antibiotics, according to the AP.
The authors of this most recent report say that "it's not an immediate threat," but rather a warning sign. But experts told the Huffington Post that it's likely the bug is "already in the guts of people throughout the United States and will continue to spread" (through fecal contact and poor hygiene, in case you were wondering), and that "within the next two to three years, it's going to be fairly routine for infections to occur in the United States for which we have no (effective) drugs available."
As for the NYC patient? Not too much is known, other than the fact that the sample with the Colistin-resistant bacteria was gastrointestinal. One of the laboratory's research directors told National Geographic that the hospital where it was collected is investigating the patient's clinical history. The city Department of Health didn't immediately respond to a request for comment, but we'll update if they do.
In a fact sheet put out last fall, the World Health Organization called antibiotic resistance "one of the biggest threats to global health today," and noted that it's "putting the achievements of modern medicine at risk. Without effective antibiotics for the prevention and treatment of infections, organ transplantations, chemotherapy and surgeries such as caesarean sections become much more dangerous."
The WHO also has a number of recommendations to keep the post-antibiotic apocalypse at bay. The general public should only use antibiotics when prescribed, and always finish the full prescription—never leave pills over and take them later when you think you have strep again, or share them with that friend who won't stop complaining about her UTI. Meanwhile, it says the pharmaceutical industry should be developing new antibiotics—though there are a few such drugs in development, the WHO notes, they're not expected to be effective against the most dangerous antibiotic-resistant germs, and the larger pharmaceutical companies haven't been doing much work on antibiotic development for a while, mostly because the drugs, which are usually prescribed for only the short term, aren't particularly profitable.
For more on on our post-antibiotic future, I recommend checking out this episode of Flash Forward-née-Meanwhile in the Future, which explores the myriad ways we can all expect to die once the drugs stop working. And after you've listened to that, go wash your hands, because if we can't get greedy Big Pharma to start making new drugs to fight these bacteria, at least we can keep from inadvertently snacking on them.