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E coli strain emerges in US, could become next superbug

Kathleen Blanchard's picture

Scientists from the Infectious Diseases Society of America warn that a strain of E coli has been found all over the United States that could become untreatable with just one more drug resistant gene. Researchers found the new strain, ST131, was responsible for 67 percent to 69 percent of infections from the bacteria that included 54 ST131 isolates. The findings have raised concern about the potential for E coli to emerge as the next superbug.

The strain of E coli was a major cause of infection in the US in 2007. Infectious disease experts say they don't know the source or why it seems to be spreading so rapidly.

Study author James Johnson, MD, of the VA Medical Center in Minneapolis says “If we could discover the sources of this strain, the transmission pathways that allow it to spread so effectively, and the factors that have led to its rapid emergence, we could find ways to intervene and possibly slow or halt this strain’s emergence."

In the past, virulent strains of E coli have been treatable with antibiotics. Highly resistant strains mostly affected individuals with weakened immunity. The new study found the ST131 strain is highly resistant to cephalosporins and was responsible for 67 percent to 69 percent of E coli strains that caused infection in the US in 2007.

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Dr. Johnson says, “If this strain gains one additional resistance gene, it will become almost untreatable and will be a true superbug, which is a very concerning scenario.” Treating drug resistance bacteria is a current focus of researchers. E coli may soon be added to the list of antimicrobial resistant bacteria known as superbugs.

E coli is a bacterium normally found in the intestines. Recent outbreaks of illness from the bacteria have been found in food, including cookie dough and beef. According to the CDC, the most common species that causes illness in people is the E. coli O157 strain. Petting zoos have also been implicated for spead of the infection causing bacteria.

The highly virulent ST131 strain of E coli is emerging and has been seen in Europe, Canada and increasingly in the US. Infection can cause bloody diarrhea, abdominal pain and cramping, and possibly nausea and vomiting.

Infectious disease experts say the new E coli strain is causing serious illness, but they don't know the source, making it difficult to intervene. Fresh produce, contaminated water, human and animal feces that pollute the ground and surface water are all possible sources of contamination. The bacteria is spread hand to mouth, making restaurants another vehicle for spreading infection when employees don't wash their hands. Drugs used to treat the infection are limited, causing concern that E coli may become the next superbug.