This Superbug Is Resistant to All Antibiotics—and Has Killed Its First American Victim

Let’s not forget that animal agriculture plays a major role in weakening our most powerful drugs.

<a href="http://www.istockphoto.com/vector/enterobacteriaceae-bacteria-family-gm612521018-105544801?st=_p_Klebsiella%20pneumoniae">ktsimage</a>/iStock

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For a while now, the specter of “pan-resistant” pathogens—superbugs so super that they can withstand all available antibiotics—have haunted US and global public health authorities. This week, we got news of one showing up in the United States.

Nearly 80 percent of the antibiotics used in the United States flow into livestock farms.

An elderly Nevada woman died in September after being infected by a strain of Klebsiella pneumoniae that was “resistant to all available antimicrobial drugs,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed in a Friday note.

For Americans, the good news is that she probably didn’t contract her fatal infection here. She had been on an “extended trip” to India, CDC reports, where she had been hospitalized several times for a broken femur (thigh bone). Since she had a history of foreign hospitalizations, the US hospital in Nevada where she died sent a sample of Enterobacteriaceae for extensive CDC testing, as the CDC recommends in such cases. The result: The bug showed resistance to no fewer than 26 antibiotics. The fact that other patients admitted to the Nevada hospital tested negative for the same strain suggests the patient picked it up in India.

But that should be cold comfort. Bacteria don’t respect borders—they travel rapidly, not just in people and products, but also in wild birds. As Sarah Zhang recently put it in The Atlantic:

Over and over, scientists have identified genes conferring resistance to a class of antibiotics, only to find the gene had circled the globe. Another recent example is ndm-1, a gene found in 2009 that confers resistance to class of antibiotics called carbapenems. “It’s very rare to catch something at the very beginning,” says Alexander Kallen, a medical epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Looking for resistance is a constant game of catch-up. You don’t notice anything until there is something to notice; by the time there is something to notice, something bad has already happened.

Too often, though, media reports about antibiotic resistance neglect to mention a key driver: modern meat production. The unraveling of antibiotics as a tool to fight infections is intimately related to the way we have raised animals for decades, dosing them with antibiotics to make animals gain weight faster and avoid infections despite in tight, unsanitary conditions. Overuse in human medicine also drives the problem, but nearly 80 percent of the antibiotics used in the United States flow into livestock farms.

The CDC, the World Health Organization, the UK government, and other public health authorities warn that overuse of drugs in meat farming are a key generator of antibiotic-resistant pathogens, which cause 90,000 US deaths annually, while also racking up $55 billion in costs and causing 8 million additional days that people spend in the hospital, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

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SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

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