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Drug Resistant Superbugs found in Fish could Affect Human Health

Kathleen Blanchard's picture

Scientists have discovered drug resistant bacteria or superbugs in fish from multiple sites in the United States that they say could adversely affect human health. Researchers found antibiotic resistant bacteria in seven species of sharks and redfish caught in waters off Belize, Florida, Louisiana and Massachusetts. According to the researchers the fish should never have been exposed to bacteria found to be resistant to multiple antibiotics.

The study revealed bacteria resistant to 13 different antibiotics that varied depending on where the fish were captured that the scientists think might be human in origin from pollution from heavily populated areas.

Mark Mitchell, a professor of veterinary clinical medicine at the University of Illinois and a senior author of the study says sewage might be part of the problem fish are beginning to harbor antibiotic resistant bacteria.

"The shark population in Belize, for example, is a big tourist area, so there are people in the water right there,” explains Mitchell. “The sampling site is not far from a sewage plant, and so all those exposures we think are playing a role.” Sewage has been linked to an outflow of antibiotic resistant bacteria that don't harm the fish but eventually could harm human health.

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“Some people might say, well, a bull shark in offshore Louisiana doesn’t really have an influence on my health,” Mitchell said. “But these fish eat what we eat. We’re sharing the same food sources. There should be a concern for us as well.” Mitchell says we are creating more antibiotic resistant organisms in our environment, and "there's probably a threshold at some point where there’s going to be a spillover and it will start to affect us as a species.”

The scientists found that sharks from Louisiana, Martha's Vineyard and offshore Louisiana had the least number of antibiotic resistant bacteria but redfish from offshore Louisiana had more drug resistant strains compared to sharks. The scientists say redfish are older than sharks; possibly accounting for the difference in the bacterial resistance.

Sharks in the Florida Keys and Belize harbored bacteria resistant to the antibiotics amikacin, ceftazidime, chloramphenicol, ciprofloxacin, doxycycline, penicillin, piperacillin, sulfamethoxazole and ticarcillin.

Antibiotic resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs, have been a concern to researchers trying to find new antibiotics to treat superbugs that continue to emerge. The new study shows that antibiotic resistant bacteria found in fish represent a new route of exposure to superbugs that can harm human health.

Journal of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine 41(1):7-16. 2010: doi: 10.1638/2007-0061.1