E. Coli Superbug Plagues England. Could United States be Next?Nov 7, 2007 | Parker Waichman LLP
An E. coli superbug has been spreading among farms in England, sparking concerns there that the country is on the verge of a major public health crises. This deadly strain, known as Extended Spectrum Beta Lactamase (ESBL) E. coli, was first discovered in Wales in 2004. It is highly resistant to antibiotics, and sickens 30,000 Britons every year. What’s worse, it kills even more people in that country than MRSA, another antibiotic-resistant infection. Now, British health officials say they have found the ESBL E. coli bacteria on 32 farms throughout the country, causing concerns that a major outbreak of this sometimes fatal disease is imminent.
While ESBL E. coli strains have been found in other countries around the world, including the United States, it seems to have been able to get a strong foothold in Britain. In 2004, the first British cases of ESBL E. coli involved elderly women. But since then, the disease has affected people of all ages and sexes. The ESBL E. coli strain produces an enzyme that makes it resistant to most antibiotics. ESBL E. coli can lead to a variety of problems, but most commonly, it causes patients to develop a serious urinary tract infection that can develop into a fatal type of blood poisoning called septicemia. Research has found that between 10% and 14% of those who are infected with this drug-resistant form of E. coli die within 30 days of catching the bug. That means that ESBL E. coli could be killing as many as 4,200 Britons every year.
Not much is known about ESBL E. coli, and it is an area in need of more research. However, there are some theories about its origins. In England, the bacteria have been found quite frequently in imported chickens. In fact, one British study found that a full quarter of the imported chickens sold in the country’s supermarkets were infected with an ESBL E. coli strain. Surveys done in the United States and Spain have found a similar link between ESBL E. coli and chickens.
It is also thought that the overuse of antibiotics in animal husbandry could be causing the development of drug resistant bacteria like ESBL E. coli. Ironically, antibiotics are often added to animal feeds to prevent the growth of E. coli in their intestinal tract. However, this practice has only helped these bacteria to evolve and develop resistances to common antibiotics. ESBL E. coli, for example, does not respond to cephalosporin antibiotics, making it a challenging disease to treat.
If ESBL E. coli has been able to infect the British food supply through either imported foods or antibiotic overuse, it could have serious implications for consumers in the United States. Other dangerous strains of E. coli have already accounted for a record number of food recalls and food poisoning outbreaks in the United States this year. And like Britain, the United States is importing more foods than ever before, while antibiotics are routinely given to the animals that end up on American dining tables. Public health officials here are said to be monitoring the situation in England, knowing full well that ESBL E. coli could soon become a problem in the United States as well.