E. Coli Superbug on the Verge of Being Untreatable

Researchers say a new E. coli strain is virulent and may soon be drug resistant. Yikes. Here’s the latest.

August 3, 2010

A drug-resistant form of e. coli may be working its way toward your summer barbecues.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—There are hundreds of strains of E. coli bacteria, and most of them are harmless. At the worst, they cause a few days of digestive discomfort. However, new research has revealed that an emerging strain, known as ST131, is on its way to becoming a drug-resistant superbug that leaves doctors with few treatment options. Most drug-resistant strains in the past fortunately didn’t cause a lot of problems. Not so with ST131. This strain is both virulent and largely unresponsive to antibiotics.


THE DETAILS: In the study, carried out by U.S. infectious-disease experts and published online in Clinical Infectious Diseases, researchers analyzed data from patients hospitalized with E. coli infections around the country in 2007. The strain responsible for the majority of these infections? ST131. Currently, the pathogen is already resistant to certain antibiotics, but researchers believe that if it adds one more resistance gene, it will be virtually untreatable. This means our immune systems will be our only weapon against it, which is particularly concerning for the young, old, and those with already suppressed immunity.

Defend yourself against resistant supergerms without making matters worse:
Protect yourself in the hospital: How to Lower Your Risk of Getting Sick in the Hospital
Avoid gross bacteria in your soda: Your Glass of Soda May Contain Fecal Matter Germs
Wash your hands properly: Stop the Spread of Flu in 15 Seconds
Make your own hand sanitizer: Fight the Flu: Make Your Own Natural Hand Sanitizer

WHAT IT MEANS: In the past, E. coli outbreaks have prompted recalls of everything from lettuce and beef to cookie dough. And while most E. coli cases result in a few hours of uncomfortable stomach cramps and more frequent trips to the bathroom, the emergence of more virulent strains is proving to be more serious. In worst-case scenarios, it’s fatal. Foodborne illnesses are also incredibly costly. A report released earlier this year found that these illnesses are costing the U.S. $150 billion a year.

The authors of this latest study say that more research is needed to determine where this strain is coming from, but other scientists have linked virulent E. coli strains, such as 0157:H7, to concentrated animal-feeding operations—in other words, factory farms.

Here are some ways to protect yourself against food- and waterborne illnesses:

• Buy organic. Feedlot and other industrial farming systems that provide the majority of supermarket meat rely on heavy antibiotic use to speed the animals' growth and prevent disease in their filthy conditions. But scientists say exposing harmful microorganisms to all these drugs is actually accelerating their ability to build resistance to many of the drugs we use. Organic certification means antibiotics are not used. Therefore, the more we support this type of agriculture, the fewer virulent, resistant pathogens will end up in our food supply. To save money on organic food, try growing your own.

• Keep your mouth closed. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cautions against swallowing water when you're swimming in pools and lakes, as this increases your risk of E. coli poisoning.

• Cook meat thoroughly. When cooking meat, be sure you hit high enough temperatures to kill all pathogens. Use a meat thermometer and this chart of safe meat temperatures to guide you.

• Get your water tested. Most of the country's drinking water is treated using chlorine, ozone, or UV rays at municipal filtration plants. However, if you drink from a well, it's a good idea to have your water tested for coliform bacteria. You’ll want to hire an EPA-certified water testing company; tests run about $20.