CREDIT: AP Photo/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Doctors are warning that a common bacteria that’s often found in the human intestinal tract may be losing its resistance to the last-resort antibiotic available to treat it. In a new report published in the New England Journal of Medicine, medical professionals explain that they’ve encountered two patients who have come down with infections that can’t be treated with the typical drugs — signaling the potential rise of a new superbug.
The bacteria in question is called “group B streptococcus.” While group A streptococcus causes the illness colloquially known as strep throat, the group B strain functions a bit differently. It’s commonly found in the human body and often doesn’t display any symptoms. But in some cases, it can cause dangerous infections, particularly among newborns and older adults. Here in the U.S., group B strep is the most common cause of potentially life-threatening cases of sepsis and meningitis during a baby’s first week of life.
Group B strep infections can typically be treated easily with penicillin and other common antibiotics. But in both of the two reported cases, patients didn’t respond to any of those treatments. Doctors are particularly concerned because the patients’ infections were also resistant to vancomycin, which is typically considered to be an antibiotic of last resort. Even though there are only two cases so far, they were isolated incidences several states apart, indicating the bacterial genetic mutation could pop up elsewhere.
“Every time there is information about another genus, species or strain of bacteria showing resistance to yet another class of antibiotic, that’s bad news because it means that yet another antibiotic weapon is about to become useless,” Elizabeth Scott, a microbiology professor at the Boston-area Simmons College, told HealthDay News.
Although it’s not yet clear whether this issue will become more widespread, the doctors are warning other medical professionals to look out for similar antibiotic-resistant strep B infections. As Scott pointed out, their findings also bring up questions about whether vancomycin is about to lose its effectiveness on a larger scale.
Strep B is hardly the only bacteria that’s currently raising alarm about superbugs. Federal health officials have been characterizing superbugs as an “urgent” public health threat for years, pointing out that antibiotic-resistant bacteria sicken at least two million Americans every year. The CDC estimates that about half of the antibiotics currently prescribed to Americans are unnecessary, which is helping to fuel the rise of ineffective drug treatments. Potentially deadly diseases like malaria, whooping cough, and tuberculosis are all starting to display signs of antibiotic resistance, and serious infections in hospitals are also on the rise.
Nonetheless, research into new types of antibiotics has been sluggish. No new major antibiotics have been developed in the past 20 years, partly because big drug companies don’t always like to fund this work.