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Another day, another superbug

An antibiotic-resistant superbug has infected this week’s headlines. Lynda Moyo wonders if we should be worried...

Written by . Published on September 17th 2010.


Another day, another superbug

Whatever happened to swine flu?

No sooner had half the population rushed out for the flu jab, did the whole episode evaporate into thin air, it seems. The answer? It may have cost the nation over £1bn but it was announced back in February that the pandemic was officially over. That is of course, a pandemic that was over before many of us had realised it had even started.

If a bacteria strain carries the NDM-1 gene it is resistant to nearly all antibiotics, including carbapenem antibiotics - also known as antibiotics of last resort. The fear among scientists is that the bacteria may attach itself to more dangerous diseases, making them difficult if not virtually impossible to treat.

Information certainly flows rapidly in this global society and while it can result in mass hysteria, on the plus side it can to some extent also control an outbreak and prevent the disastrous results implied by the name pandemic. With that in mind, here’s a new one for you.

This week has seen the media emergence of a new antibiotic-resistant superbug. Scientists say it’s made its way over from India via patients who had undergone hospitalisation in the Indian subcontinent before returning to the UK. A significant number of Europeans who brought the ailment back to Europe had undergone cosmetic surgery in India or Pakistan because it is cheaper there. The worry isn’t that there are many cases in the UK right now - it’s that there could be in the future.

Doctor David Livermore from the Health Protection agency said: "We have now identified bacteria with this type of resistance in around 50 patients in the UK. Most, not all, had previously travelled to the Indian subcontinent, and many had received hospital treatment there. International travel gives a great potential for spread of resistant bacteria between countries.

"Few antibiotics remain active against these bacteria. Their spread underscores the need for good infection control in hospitals both in the UK and overseas, and the need for new antibiotic development."

Of the 50 cases in the UK, A study published in the British medical journal The Lancet, marks the North West as having two locations of known incidents so far. It is also believed to have already been passed from patient to patient in some of the UK hotspot hospitals. The way to stop it, according to researchers, is through increased infection control measures in hospitals, continual surveillance and isolation of infected patients.

A Department of Health spokesperson said: "We are working with the Health Protection Agency (HPA) on this issue. The HPA alerted the NHS in January and July last year to be vigilant about these bacteria and take appropriate action where necessary.

"Hospitals need to ensure they continue to provide good infection control to prevent any spread, consider whether patients have recently been treated abroad and send samples to HPA for testing. So far there has only been a small number of cases in UK hospital patients. The HPA is continuing to monitor the situation and we are investigating ways of encouraging the development of new antibiotics with our European colleagues."

The antibiotic-resistant bacteria goes by the name New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase - that’s NDM-1 to me and you. They exist in different bacteria including E Coli. If a bacteria strain carries the NDM-1 gene it is resistant to nearly all antibiotics, including carbapenem antibiotics - also known as antibiotics of last resort. The fear among scientists is that the bacteria may attach itself to more dangerous diseases, making them difficult if not virtually impossible to treat.

Doctor Livermore added: "What we're seeing here isn't the spread of a single superbug rather it is the spread of resistance between bacteria and this resistance includes the carbapenems which have been the most powerful the most reliable antibiotics in many infections."

It seems that for now, NDM-1 is a watching and waiting game. Researchers believe it is likely the superbug will spread worldwide. Similar infections have already been found in the US, Australia, Canada, the Netherlands and Sweden, so it’s worth paying attention to updates and acting accordingly rather than allowing hysteria to spread faster than the bacteria itself.

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