Bug resistant to all antibiotics causes fatality

II  JAN 19 2017

Lewis Germain

Antibiotics are arguably the greatest weapon that medical professionals possess. Since their discovery and initial development in the early twentieth century, antibiotics have helped us fight off a massive variety of infections. However, a concerning story has emerged from Nevada, USA where a woman has died from an infection caused by a strain of bacteria resistant to every available antibiotic. The threat of antibiotic resistance is slowly becoming a reality.

Fatal infection

The patient, in her 70s, was brought into hospital when a seroma – a collection of fluid underneath the skin – on her hip became infected. Her condition worsened and the lady developed sepsis, which is when the body’s inflammatory mechanism overreacts to infection causing organs to shut down.  Consequently, the patient unfortunately died.

When the lady was first taken into hospital with this infection – about a month before her death – a sample of the fluid from the seroma was sent to the lab. This allowed them to identify which particular bacteria was causing the infection, as well as find out which antibiotic would be best to treat it. When the results came back, the bacteria was found to be Klebsiella pneumoniae, a bacteria that usually lives happily in our gut without causing any harm, but can cause infection in some cases. Despite knowing the cause, the tests showed that this particular strain was a ‘superbug’, resistant to every single antibiotic they had at their disposal: they had nothing but the patient’s immune system to try and fight it off.

Antibiotic resistance

Many ‘superbugs’ – a term to describe strains of bacteria resistant to the antibiotics that usually work against them – have emerged over recent years, the most widely known example in the UK being methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA. Despite this resistance, there are antibiotics available that will treat MRSA, as is the case for many other superbugs. The fear with increasing resistance, however, is that certain bugs could develop so much of it that, in the future, we may become powerless to treat certain infections: a nightmare realised in the case from Nevada.

What can we do to stop this?

Firstly, as is often reported, it is important that medical professionals are careful about prescribing antibiotics; the more they’re used, the more likely bacteria are to become resistant to them. By understanding this, it allows medical professionals and patients to work together in order to use them appropriately.

The careful use of antibiotics is particularly important as the development of new ones has slowed considerably. The ones we use for common infections were mostly developed between 1940 and 1970. Just two types have been discovered in the 21st century, the most recent being in 2006. However, despite this reduction in development, all is not lost. Scientists are continually increasing their understanding of bacteria, which provides the potential to develop new treatments.

Nevertheless, antibiotics are still a fantastic way to treat bacterial infections and, in certain cases, prevent them in those at risk. Do not be put off from taking them, as it is important that we quickly treat serious infections, as well as the less severe ones that cause us to be unwell. Also, the super-resistant strain of Klebsiella from this story is just one of many: the vast majority can be treated.

As always, if you have any concerns about any infection you may have, please visit your GP, keeping in mind the importance of using antibiotics in the right way. The responsibility lies with all of us to ensure that we have them at our disposal for many years to come.

Any opinions above are the author's alone and may not represent those of the NHS or Mind and Medicine. Any comment is based on the best available evidence at the time of writing. All data is based on externally validated studies unless expressed otherwise. Novel data is representative of sample surveyed. Online recommendation is no substitute for seeing your own doctor and should not be taken as medical advice.