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‘Superbug’ May Be An Overstatement, But Officials Worried About Drug-Resistant E. Coli

A Pennsylvania woman has been infected with a rare form of E. coli that is resistant to a last-resort antibiotic, typically only administered when all other antibiotics have proven ineffective.

The E. Coli strain was found in her urine after she went to the doctor for treatment of a urinary tract infection. The bacteria carries a gene called mcr-1 that makes it resistant to a drug called colistin, which is rarely used because it can cause damage to the kidneys and nervous system.

Some media outlets are calling it a “superbug” but, Yohei Doi, infectious disease specialist with UPMC, said that characterization is a “bit of an overstatement.”

Doi said there are at least two groups of antibiotics  – carbapenems and aminoglycosides – that are effective against this strain of E. coli.

“The theoretical concern down the line is, now that we have it in the U.S., could this particular gene move to other bacteria that are even more resistant to other antibiotics?” he said. “At that point, we may have a scenario where we have no treatment options.”

According to the U.S. Department of Defense, officials in China first discovered E. coli with the mcr-1 gene in November. Since then, it has been discovered in other parts of Asia, Africa, Europe and South America, according to Doi. The DOD reports that the E. coli strain has also been found in the U.S. in a pig intestine sample.

Doi said antibiotics are being overused, particularly when it comes to food production in countries with few regulations on the animal agriculture industry.

“People travel, things travel, food travels all the time. It’s a globalized economy,” he said. “We just need to be on the lookout for these things as they make their way into the U.S.”

“It will take a global effort to combat antibiotic resistance,” said Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Thomas Frieden said in a video posted online in November, shortly after the new E. coli strain was discovered.

The CDC estimates that up to half of all human antibiotic use is unnecessary and is working with doctors to limit the use of antibiotics.

In March 2015, the Obama Administration released its National Action Plan for Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria, with the goal of slowing the emergence of new resistant bacteria and the spread of existing bacteria, as well as improving surveillance and investing more in research to develop new antibiotics, therapies and vaccines by 2020.

In the near term, officials from the Pennsylvania Department of Health are working with the CDC and DOD “to coordinate an appropriate and collaborative response between federal, state, and local entities,” according to a statement from Governor Tom Wolf’s Office. In an effort to maintain the patient’s privacy, Press Secretary Jeff Sheridan declined to provide more information about what that response would entail.

But Doi said the first step will probably be to figure out where this particular woman picked up the E. coli bug.

“And the next thing would be," he said, "did it go from her to anyone else close by who came in contact with her?” 

Liz Reid began working at WESA in 2013 as a general assignment reporter and weekend host. Since then, she’s worked as the Morning Edition producer, health & science reporter and as an editor.
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