Scientists have warned that deadly bacteria like salmonella and E. coli have mutated to be resistant to our last line of antibiotics and are already circulating Britain.
For years health experts have warned that antibiotic resistance could send medicine back to the dark ages, where even the smallest infections of cuts were deadly.
At present, when all other drugs fail, doctors use polymyxins – like colistin – as a final resort to treat bacterial infections like E. coli and those which cause pneumonia.
However, Public Health England has now discovered that at least two NHS patients have been infected with antibiotic resistant E. coli and others with salmonella which antibiotics are failing to treat.
The strains contain a gene called MCR-1 which can be easily copied and moved between bacteria, meaning that the resistance can be easily passed on.
Mutated forms of E. coli were found in 1322 hospitalized patients in China last month and are believed to have already spread to Malaysia and Laos, and experts have warned that food imports and global travel could enable it to travel to Britain.
Professor Timothy Walsh of Cardiff Institute of Infection and Immunity at Cardiff University stated that it was a disturbing breach of our last line of defense against infection and that the risk to human health should not be underestimated.
Colistin is often used for mass medication of intensively farmed poultry and pigs, and scientists think that the resistance gene is spread from farm animals to humans since the antibiotic is utilized much more widely in veterinary medicine than in human medicine. Campaigners are now calling for a ban of Colistin use in animals.
Scientific Advisor to the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics, Cóilín Nunan, stated that despite scientists stating that resistance to this last-resort antibiotic is probably spreading from farm animals to humans, it still remains totally legal in the UK and most EU countries to frequently feed Colistin to huge groups of intensively farmed animals, even when these animals have not been diagnosed with any disease.
Since the discovery of MCR-1 in China in November, scientists around the globe have been re-examining their collections of bacteria from humans and farm animals for the gene.
British government officials discovered the MCR-1 gene in E. coli from two separate pig farms: in one stored E. coli from a pig, and in three E. coli from two separate patients.
The E. coli from the human patients was also resistant to the important cephalosporin antibiotics.
The Colistin gene was also discovered in ten human salmonella infections and in salmonella from a sole imported sample of poultry meat.
Public Health England stated that the risk to public health was low and advised people to ensure that food was cooked properly.
The resistant gene has also been discovered in France, Denmark, Portugal, the Netherlands and in several African and Asian countries in the past few weeks.
UK farming and veterinary sectors have agreed to temporarily restrict the use of Colistin; however, no action has been taken by regulators to halt routine mass medication with the antiobiotic.