A new case of superbug infection has emerged in New York City, marking it the second case of incredibly resistant strain of bacteria containing the mcr-1 gene, in the country. The superbug gene is believed to have been found in the test samples of a patient with an E. coli infection.

Superbugs are bacteria that are resistant to multiple antibiotics and represent one of the most challenging health problems of the 21st century,” said Cesar Arias, a professor at the University of Texas Health Medical School.

The discovery was to be published on Monday in a journal issue by the American Society for Microbiology. However, editors decided to withhold the information along with the name and condition of the patient to check its accuracy. Although the information was provided to several media outlets, the details were not meant to be disclosed until they were verified. Further details on the superbug will be published by the concerned scientists in the coming weeks.

The superbug is a bacterial strain containing a resistant gene which makes the pathogen resistant to a class of last-resort antibiotics. This particular superbug containing the mcr-1 gene was first discovered in China inside both pigs and human bloodstreams and it seems the strain has since then traveled to America.

The superbug has been dubbed a ‘nightmare’ bacteria by health experts since it cannot be even treated by the antibiotic drug Colistin (polymyxin E) which is currently being used to treat other multi-drug-resistant infections. What’s more worrying for the US healthcare system regarding this particular strain is the ability of the mcr-1 to share resistance genes with other bacteria.

Currently, arbapenem-resistant enterobacteriaceae (CRE) is another bacterium in the US with the potential to make antibiotics ineffective. Experts believe mcr-1 may find a path into CRE, resulting in a species of bacteria which is resistant to any type of antibiotic.

Last month the same gene embedded in E. coli was found in a woman from Pennsylvania. The woman, who had contracted a urinary tract infection, was found to be the first ever carrier of the specific mcr-1 superbug in the US and was being treated at an outpatient military facility in Pennsylvania. After initial tests, additional tests were carried out by a special Defense Department system specializing in tracking multi-drug-resistant organisms.

The movements of the mcr-1 around the globe and in the US have been monitored by the global initiative against antimicrobial resistance called SENTRY Antimicrobial Surveillance Program. The US division of the program is based in Iowa and run by Mariana Castanheira of JMI Laboratories.

A total of 19 mcr-1 isolates have so far been recognized by the initiative from regions encompassing Asia-Pacific, Latin America, Europe and North America. The program tested 13,525 individuals having Escherichia coli and 7,481 patients with Klebsiella pneumoniae strains, last year. It was found that 1.9% i.e. 390 strains were resistant to the drug Colistin, and 19 of them had the mcr-1 gene.

Antimicrobial resistance is a phenomenon in which infectious organisms e.g. bacteria, fungi etc. develop resistance against the drugs used to kill them. The adaptive resistance makes drugs such as antibiotics less effective or sometimes useless in some cases. Although people with weakened immune systems are at greater risks of dying from antimicrobial resistant infections, no one can completely avoid the risk of infection.

Microorganisms develop resistance when they replicate and exchange genes in between them. It is believed the misuse or over-use of antibiotics over the decades has led to the formation of antimicrobial resistance. Similarly, poor hygienic conditions also lead to the manifestation of drug resistance.

The World Health Organization (WHO) states: “A post-antibiotic era – in which common infections and minor injuries can kill – far from being an apocalyptic fantasy, is instead a very real possibility for the 21st Century.”

In the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has estimated more than 2 million people contract infections from pathogens with antimicrobial resistance, which leads to more than 23,000 deaths every year. Although antibiotics are also one of the most prescribed drugs used for lifesaving conditions in the US, 50% of the time the drugs are given to patients unnecessarily.

Antimicrobial resistance can be developed in microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, virus, parasites and all microbes which are pathogenic in nature. In such cases, common infections like flu, pneumonia, urinary tract infections etc. will turn deadly. Other infections of increasing concern all over the world are caused by bacteria such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) or multidrug-resistant Gram-negative bacteria.

The issue of antimicrobial resistance not only poses a problem for the US, but is a serious threat to the entire world. Current standard treatments can lead to prolonged illnesses, high health care expenditures s and increased risks of death.

“It basically shows us that the end of the road isn’t very far away for antibiotics,” said CDC Director Tom Frieden.