The “phantom menace” superbug sounds like something nightmares and apocalypse fiction are made of — a bacteria that has evolved to eat antibiotics, leaving half of the people infected dead.
Though microbiologists and public health experts are terrified of the new superbug, it’s rare enough for the general public to rest easy — at least for now. However, its rising resistance to antibiotics and the potential for “rapid global dissemination,” as one expert put it, is very real.
The Centers for Disease Control issued a report about the phantom menace superbug on Thursday. The strain belongs to a family of bacteria called CRE, which stands for “carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae,” Live Science explained. The superbug includes strains of E. coli and other bacteria.
According to The Washington Post, in the past five years, the CDC has seen 43 people in 19 states with the phantom menace superbug. One patient caught it in 2010, and 11 people each year in 2013, 2014, and 2015; the last case was reported in August.
These numbers are low, but CDC Director Thomas Frieden said it’s “just the tip of the iceberg.”
This strain of CRE has flown under health officials’ radar because it’s less resistant to antibiotics than other strains — hence the nickname phantom menace — and CDC has taken steps to ensure it becomes part of standard testing.
The phantom menace superbug can kill up to 50 percent of patients who become infected. And the way the phantom menace manages to do that is maliciously genius.
The strain is different from other types of CRE because it has a mobile piece of DNA called a plasmid, which has an enzyme that can break down antibiotics. Even more frightening: the bacteria can transfer that mobile piece of DNA to bacteria that already resides in our bodies. Thanks to that transfer, those normal strains become resistant to treatment, too.
“This is a tricky drug-resistant bacteria, and it isn’t easily found,” Frieden said. “What we’re seeing is an assault by the microbes on the last bastion of antibiotics.”
Bacteria can become resistant either by evolving a genome that deactivates the drugs, which they can’t share with other pathogens; or they get infected by a dangerous plasmid. These plasmids can copy themselves and move within a family of bugs, or infect other strains. These strains don’t have to go through the lengthy process of evolution — they get a shortcut.
The gene makes the bacteria fight off colistin, a last resort treatment against a superbug. It has a plasmid, just like the phantom menace.
Carbapenems, the antibiotics that are pointless against CRE strains like the phantom menace superbug, aren’t the last line of defense — which is a good thing. But the strain’s increasing ability to eat the drugs meant to kill them means that doctors have less treatments available, and they like to have plenty of weapons in their arsenal to treat infected patients. Lance Price, director of the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center at George Washington University, was particularly pessimistic.
“History shows that these mobile resistance genes can spread around the world quickly, silently riding in people, animals and food.”
The voice of calm is infectious disease specialist Dr. William Schaffner, who assured that only health officials and experts like him need to take note, and that everyone else doesn’t need to panic. He said the few clusters of infection suggest that it has spread in hospitals thus far. Furthermore, those infected had recently traveled abroad, specifically to India, and 16 were hospitalized outside the country.
For now, Schaffner has noted all that doctors and patients can do is be a bit more prudent about antibiotics as the phantom menace continues to frighten scientists.
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