A so-called superbug immune to all antibiotics was discovered for the first time in a person in the U.S., reports a study published Thursday in the journal Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy.
The discovery "heralds the emergence of a truly pan-drug resistant bacteria," the study's authors warned.
"I've cared for patients for whom there are no drugs left. It is a feeling of such horror and helplessness."
—Thomas Frieden, CDC
The strain of E. coli discovered in a 49-year-old woman in Pennsylvania was found to be resistant to colistin, "the antibiotic of last resort for particularly dangerous types of superbugs, including a family of bacteria known as CRE," reports the Washington Post.
Colistin "was an old antibiotic, but it was the only one left for what I call nightmare bacteria," said Thomas Frieden, chief of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), according to Al Jazeera.
"It's the first time this colistin-resistant strain has been found in a person in the United States," the Post notes. "In November, public health officials worldwide reacted with alarm when Chinese and British researchers reported finding the colistin-resistant strain in pigs, raw pork meat and in a small number of people in China."
The dreaded superbug was later discovered in individual cases Europe and Canada, as well as in a single sample from a pig intestine in the U.S., according to a Department of Defense (DoD) blog post about the findings.
The woman had gone to an outpatient military clinic complaining of symptoms of a urinary tract infection on April 26, 2016, and samples of the bacteria were sent to Walter Reed Medical Center for further testing.
An additional 20 patients at the clinic were tested for the superbug but came up negative, and the woman reported no travel in the past five months. The study authors report that it remains unclear exactly what the superbug's prevalence is in the local population.
"A coordinated public health response is underway to try to prevent its spread," writes the DoD.
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The superbug's arrival in the U.S. "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," Frieden said to the Washington Post on Thursday.
"I've been there for TB patients. I've cared for patients for whom there are no drugs left. It is a feeling of such horror and helplessness," Frieden added. "This is not where we need to be."
Al Jazeera delves into the causes of the disastrous rise of antibiotic-resistant superbugs:
Overprescribing of antibiotics by physicians and in hospitals and their extensive use in food livestock have been blamed for contributing to the crisis.
More than half of all patients treated in hospital will get an antibiotic at some point during their stay. But studies have shown that 30 to 50 percent of antibiotics prescribed in hospitals are unnecessary or incorrect, contributing to antibiotic resistance.
In the U.S., antibiotic resistance has been blamed for at least two million illnesses and 23,000 deaths a year.
Indeed, the CDC and the World Health Organization have long been sounding the alarm about the ballooning global threat of antibiotic resistance caused by overprescription. As Common Dreams reported earlier this month, a recent CDC study showed that 30 percent "of the 154 million prescriptions for antibiotics given at doctors' offices and emergency departments were wrong... And those figures are likely conservative."
Moreover, notes the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), "More than 70 percent of antibiotics important for human medicine sold in the U.S. are actually sold for use in livestock—often for routine growth promotion and disease prevention in animals that are not sick."
"We know now that the more we look, the more [superbugs] we are going to find," Frieden warned. "We risk being in a post-antibiotic world."