The Rise of the Super Bug?

Last year an Italian professor from Rome fell ill while on holiday in Ponza. His symptoms were the common symptoms of fever and shaking because of an infection in his urinary system. Medical advice was a course of an antibiotic named ciprofloxacin. They didn’t work after seven days and on his return to Rome tests showed up a bacterial strain of E.coli that is obviously immune to this major antibiotic. A month later and after a second antibiotic course the professor recovered but just for four days and this symptoms returned. Fortunately for the professor he personally knew an expert in infections who prescribed a third and ultimately effective antibiotic.

The case of the Italian professor is becoming increasingly typical all over Europe, as the spectre of incurable super bugs draws ever closer. Around 25,000 people succumb every year in the EU from bacterial infections that cannot be overcome by our known antibiotics. Countries with the most number of cases, like the professors, are Greece, Cyprus, Italy, Hungary and Bulgaria. They also tend to be the countries with the highest use of those antibiotics.

There are two trends that are stoking the fires under the untreatable infections inferno. Firstly, antibiotics are being over prescribed by doctors everywhere. Often on a ‘just in case basis’, to be seen to be doing something but without any real diagnosis of the underlying causes of the illness. The more we use antibiotics the more resistant become the bacteria. Secondly there is insufficient research into new antibiotics against the new strains of infection. The problem is, there is little money to be made in treatments for short-term illnesses.

The European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (ECDC) said on Wednesday that one bacteria – K. pneumoniae – it causes half of all blood poisoning and common urinary and respiratory conditions – is totally immune to carbapenems, our most potent category of antibiotics. And across the European continent, the proportion of K. pneumoniae cases has risen from 7% to 15%. The ECDC are extremely concerned because carbapenems are our antibiotics of last resort for drug-resistant infections.

Two years ago carbapenem-resistant K. pneumoniae was at home only in Greece. However 2010, it had spread to Italy, Austria, Cyprus and Hungary. The bacterium thrives in the intestines and is passed on by physical contact.

Antibiotic resistant E.coli also blossomed in 2010. Between a quarter and a half of E.coli cases in Italy and Spain were resistant to fluoroquinolones in 2010, one of the most important antibiotics for treating the bacterium.

In the UK, 70 patients have been found with NDM-1-containing bacteria. This is an enzyme that kills carbapenems. A different study tells us that more than 80% of travellers coming into the country from India to Europe carried the NDM genes in their bowels.

[box type=”note”]The UK Health Protection Agency advised doctors in October to stop prescribing a drug typically used to treat gonorrhea (17,000 infections in 2009) because it is simply a waste of time and money. The agency further advised a treatment of two drugs rather than one and warned of the growing reality of untreatable gonorrhoea in the medium term.[/box]


Claire Al-Aufi

Claire Al-Aufi is a contributing author for Hive Health Media who provides updates on health and fitness news.

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