The revelation that a bacteria resistant to an antibiotic of last resort has been found in the United States is a big deal and something public health officials are taking very seriously, as they should.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced in late May that E. coli bacteria carrying what’s known as the mcr-1 gene was found in a urine sample from a Pennsylvania woman. Additionally, a recently published study says the bacteria was found in a New York man last year. It has also been found in two pigs, which has prompted some to voice food safety concerns.
The CDC and others have been hunting for this gene in the U.S. ever since its emergence in China last year, so it did not come as a big surprise when it was detected. This particular gene makes bacteria resistant to an antibiotic called colistin, which is used as a last-resort drug to treat patients with multi-drug-resistant infections. Colistin is an old drug – first introduced in 1959. Because it can be toxic to the kidneys, it hasn’t been used much over the years in people, which is part of the reason bacteria have not developed resistance to it. Colistin has never been used in food-producing animals in the U.S.
What some people may not understand is that this E. coli strain is sensitive to several commonly-used antibiotics. The Pennsylvania woman has been treated and is reportedly doing fine. The concern is that the presence of the mcr-1 gene and its ability to share its colistin resistance with other bacteria raises the risk that multi-resistant bacteria could develop. That’s something to be taken very seriously.
As for the food safety concern, there are multiple safeguards in place to prevent bacteria from entering the food supply. Good hand hygiene minimizes the risk and cooking meat to the proper temperature kills all bacteria. And, in the rare event a person gets sick from this bacteria, treatment options are available.
The CDC and its federal partners are working hard to address this issue. In the meantime, there’s no cause for panic. Concern – yes, panic – no. There is no evidence that this is a widespread problem.
People are understandably concerned when they read and hear about so-called “superbugs.” But, medical experts caution against using the term loosely. In reaction to a 2013 report from an advocacy group, the FDA stated, “It is inaccurate and alarmist to define bacteria resistant to one, or even a few, antimicrobials as ‘superbugs’ if these same bacteria are still treatable by other commonly used antibiotics.”
There’s growing consumer concern and rising pressure on the food system regarding the use of antibiotics in food animals. Animal antibiotics must be used wisely to minimize agriculture’s contribution to antibiotic resistance, an issue farms and food companies take seriously. It’s important to remember that preventing disease and treating sick animals through the responsible use of antibiotics is the ethical thing to do.
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