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Antibiotic Resistant E. Coli Found in Arctic Birds

Jan 4, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP Drug resistant E. coli is on the rise and becoming more prevalent.  Now, new research has found that E. coli with antibiotic resistant is showing up in some surprising place – for instance, in populations of arctic birds who have never been exposed to the drugs.

Infectious diseases become resistant to bacteria because of antibiotic overuse and abuse.  When antibiotics are used for a virus, such as the common cold, they have no effect. But people want antibiotics and doctors will prescribe them.  Well, bacteria want to survive.  And they do.  We prescribe antibiotics; bacteria learn to adapt.  We overuse or misuse antibiotics; bacteria mutate, changing just enough to ensure antibiotics have no effect on them and giving them a wide berth to spread with ever more power.  Although tempting, preventative antibiotic regimes only worsen the epidemic and strengthen the bacteria.  And while new drugs are emerging, it’s just a matter of time before super bugs will become resistant to them, too.

Antibiotic resistance is so pervasive that scientists now report having found evidence of drug-repelling E. coli in Arctic birds as remote as the polar ice cap.  It seems migratory fowl that circumnavigate the globe along centuries-old flyways passed the bacteria.  Reporting in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, scientists in Sweden traveled to vast regions of the frigid ice cap in search of species they hoped had been spared exposure to drug-resistant strains and were surprised to discover widespread antibiotic-resistant E. coli in Arctic-dwelling birds never previously exposed to the drugs.  Maria Sjolund of Central Hospital in Vaxjo, Sweden, went on a series of Arctic expeditions, collecting mostly fecal samples from nearly 100 birds in three geographic regions:  Northeastern Siberia; Point Barrow, Alaska; and northern Greenland. Although thousands of miles apart, the locations are linked through looping migratory flyways. 

Sjolund maintains her finding adds credence to the notion that antibiotic resistance is global and no region is unscathed.  She and her team noted that while most of the recent emphasis on drug resistance focused on antibiotic misuse by humans, there is evidence for the epidemic spread of drug-resistant strains by other species. 

Dr. Roy Steigbigel, professor of medicine and microbiology at Stony Brook University Medical Center, said migratory birds expose Arctic flocks to drug-resistant E. coli through excrement.  "The prevalence is somewhat surprising, but the fact that it has occurred is not," added Steigbigel, who said bird flu, which has reached epidemic proportions in flocks worldwide, reaches diverse areas by the same freeways in the sky. 

"We live in a world of migration of all sorts of animals, birds, and humans," Steigbigel said.  "We had an example recently of multi-drug-resistant TB.  I see all of it as a continuum:  As birds migrating on wings to humans migrating in airplanes."

Dr. Stuart B. Levy, president of the Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics at Boston’s Tufts University, said there’s no way to stop migrating flocks. "Birds feeding on feces will carry it and deliver it elsewhere."  Birds become exposed stepping in infected feces and migratory birds are exposed in many ways, including through food and water, in regions where antibiotics are routinely misused. 

Levy helps consumers understand the dangers of drug-resistance—fewer drugs to treat serious infections—emphasizing that resistance is environmentally widespread, even waterways are impacted as sewage and agricultural runoff expose fish.

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