You have probably heard of the new superbug by now. “Antibiotic ‘last line of defense’ breached in China”! “Antibiotic resistance: World on cusp of ‘post-antibiotic era”! “Antibiotic under threat, as new superbug emerges in China”! In a nutshell: A new superbug is GOING TO KILL US ALL. Sorry to ruin your day here. But we knew what was coming for a very long time. We never listened. We ask for antibiotics when we´ve caught a viral cold, even though we were told many times that antibiotics only kill bacteria. We eat cheap meat – and lots of it. Some people use antibiotics as painkillers. Excuse me, while I bang my head against a wall. The irony is, the World Health Organization is running their Antibiotic Awareness Week in the same week as the first finding of a “last resort” – antibiotic resistant superbug is published. (Or possibly, a deliberate, tactical move, but we´ll never know because they only answer questions from professional journalists. A blog doesn´t seem to qualify as proper journalism in their books…)
Since many news articles have already covered the fact that resistance is happening, I will now focus on what exactly makes this particular E. Coli strain so special. The short version: The MRC-1 gene. It gives the bacteria resistance against polymyxins. These were our last resort antibiotics, and stupidly enough, also part of the drugs we use on animal farms. The first superbugs were found in pigs in China. The creepy part is: MRC-1 is a gene, which is encoded on short-stranded DNA, the kind that floats around loosely in a bacteriums inner cell filling, and is easily shared with other bacteria strains. This means that the gene can hop from E.Coli (harmless to people with a functioning immune system) to Cholera, Tetanus, Syphilis, Tuberculosis… (a list goes on here and all can lead to painful, agonizing death). This is called horizontal gene transfer, and it is what makes MRC-1 the stuff of nightmares. This thing can spread – and it probably already has, from China to Laos and Malaysia.
When we ate our steak at that last summer BBQ, when we stopped taking the pills the doctor gave us a bit sooner than he´d asked us to, when we begged said doctor to relieve us from the pain of a viral infection, we were unwillingly putting the lives of future generations at risk. With antibiotic resistance, we are exposing our sick and our elderly, our young and our vulnerable to a previously curable threat. Organ transplant patients, cancer patients, pregnant mothers giving birth via a cesarean section… These are just a few examples of the people whose lives depend on antibiotics. The resistance is already upon us. But with just a few more rational choices, at the doctors, or when we sit down to have dinner, we can still fight back. So keep that brain buzzing. Otherwise autopilot will get us into the post – antibiotic era sooner than we ever wanted.