Next stop Australia: drug-resistant suberbugs are on their way

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

It’s only a matter before superbugs, of the type on which antibiotics have no effect, reach Australia.

A woman in the US has been found to be carrying bacteria-resistant to colistin , which is known as the antibiotic of last resort.

Resistance for colistin was first reported in China in November last year. This resistance gene then spread to Asia, Africa, Europe, South America and now the US.

“Entry into Australia cannot be far off, if in fact it isn’t already here,” says Michael Gillings, Professor of Molecular Evolution in the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University

“Antibiotics have saved countless numbers of lives, probably even yours. But because we have abused antibiotics, taking them when we don’t need to, and using them as growth promoters in animals, bacteria have developed resistance.

“They do so by collecting genes for resistance. The more genes they collect, the more resistant they are.

“That’s why reports of spreading resistance to the antibiotic of last resort, colistin, are so worrying.”

When multi-resistant bacteria acquire the colistin resistance gene, there will be no antibiotics left to treat infections.

Surgery will become very dangerous and people will commonly die of infectious disease.

UN estimates suggest more than 10 million people will be dying of antibiotic resistant infections every year by 2050, and that this death toll will be higher than deaths from cancer.

Sanjaya Senanayake, a practising infectious diseases physician at the Australian National University Medical School, says the report from the US shows that the horse has bolted — the superbugs are already there.

The colistin-resistance gene was found in China in animals, meat products and in humans, demonstrating the link between animal and human bacteria.

“It is a big deal that it has been found in the US, especially in a patient who hasn’t apparently been overseas for many months,” Senanayake says.

“It suggests that she has picked it up within the US, possibly from a food product, meaning that the colistin mcr-gene is already there.”

The nightmare scenario is if a subgroup of superbugs called CRE (Carbapenem-Resistant Enterobacteriaceae) picks up the colistin resistance from another bacterium, then there won’t be any antibiotics with which to treat a sick patient.

“It will truly be like pre-antibiotic times, not even one hundred years ago,” Senanayake says.

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