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Scientists have just found a “nightmare superbug” in the US

Scientists just discovered a drug-resistant stain of E. coli in a US patient.
Scientists just discovered a drug-resistant stain of E. coli in a US patient.

Antibiotic resistance is really a big, scary deal. Consider this new and frightening discovery: Researchers just reported the first discovery of the MCR-1 gene in E. coli bacteria in an American patient. 

This "nightmare superbug" — which was found in the urine of a Pennsylvania woman with symptoms of urinary tract infection — is resistant to colistin, a last-resort antibiotic commonly used to treat hospital-acquired infections when all other drugs have failed. 

"[This] heralds the emergence of truly pan-drug resistant bacteria," the researchers wrote in the journal Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy.

Superbugs, which are bacteria unresponsive to the drugs we have in our medical arsenal, naturally evolve in response to antibiotic exposure. But there are factors that can speed up their arrival and proliferation. And it turns out the individual choice we make about how and whether to use antibiotics is a big one, as shown in this graphic below:

This infographic models the contribution of each factor as a driver for antimicrobial resistance.

In a recent Lancet series on superbugs, researchers visualized the various modifiable drivers of antibiotic resistance. As you can see, they found that human antibiotic misuse and overuse was one of the single biggest contributors. It was followed only by the abuse of antibiotics in agriculture (another big problem that you can read about here).

Late last year,
Chinese and European researchers identified the same colistin-resistant bacteria in human and animal samples. That prompted government researchers in the US to start looking for it.

And in the US, researchers didn't just find the microbe in the patient in Pennsylvania. The US Department of Health and Human Services also announced this week that it, along with the US Department of Agriculture, found the same bacteria in a pig.

If the new, drug-resistant E. coli spreads, CDC Director Tom Frieden said, it would mean a return to a pre-antibiotic era.

"It basically shows us that the end of the road isn't very far away for antibiotics — that we may be in a situation where we have patients in our intensive-care units, or patients getting urinary tract infections for which we do not have antibiotics," he told the Washington Post on Thursday.

If we help more and more bacteria evolve to outsmart the drugs we have, it means common medical procedures like hip operations and C-sections will soon become more dangerous, and some medical interventions — organ transplants, chemotherapy — will be impossible to survive.

So if you want to stave off a post-antibiotic era, take action now. Before you fill your next prescription, ask your doctor about whether you truly need antibiotics. They won't help your flu or cold; both are caused by viruses, not the bacteria that antibiotics are designed to kill. If you do take them, be sure to use the antibiotics properly and finish the dose you're prescribed.

Watch: Stop taking antibiotics to treat your cold