London - Potentially lethal superbugs that are resistant to the most powerful antibiotics have been found in Britain.
Twelve people have been treated for infections linked to virulent strains of salmonella and E.coli carrying a deadly resistance gene.
At the same time, bugs carrying the same gene have been found on three pig farms in the UK and chicken meat imported from Europe.
Just last month, scientists sounded the alarm over the danger of untreatable infections after the discovery of a “super” version of E.coli on pig farms in China.
The bug contained the MCR-1 gene, which disables colistin – the antibiotic that would usually be used to treat humans after all other drugs have failed.
A similar bug was then found in Denmark. Now this same gene has been found in bugs on people, meat and farm animals in Britain. Health experts insist the risk is “very low” and the bacteria can be killed by cooking. However a review is being carried out.
The news from China triggered an investigation by Public Health England (PHE), which ordered tests on 24 000 human and food samples collected since 2012.
They found 15 cases of the resistance gene, including ten people infected with salmonella, three cases of E.coli in two hospital patients, and two cases of salmonella on a single sample of chicken from the EU. The 12 British patients could not be treated with colistin, but survived after doctors found other drugs that worked.
At the same time, the Veterinary Medicines Directorate re-tested samples from farmed pigs taken in the last two years. It found that E.coli in pigs from three different farms carried the resistance gene.
The Chief Medical Officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, has previously linked the use of antibiotics on farms to the rise of superbugs. According to the Alliance To Save Our Antibiotics – which revealed the presence of the superbugs in Britain – some 837kg of colistin were sold for use on UK farm animals in 2014. Meanwhile just 300kg are used per year in human medicine.
It claims the mass medication of livestock has been instrumental in salmonella and E.coli developing a resistance. The group’s scientific adviser Coilin Nunan said: “Despite scientists saying that resistance to this last-resort antibiotic is likely to be spreading from farm animals, it still remains legal to feed colistin to large groups of animals. The routine preventative use of colistin in farming needs to be banned.”
Professor Timothy Walsh, of Cardiff Institute of Infection and Immunity, added that the discovery was a “disturbing breach” of our last line of defence against infection and the risk to human health should not be underestimated.
But Professor Alan Johnson, head of antibiotic resistance at Public Health England, played down the threat. He said: “The MCR-1 gene has been found in a very small number of samples. The health risk is currently considered very low but is subject to ongoing review.
“The organisms identified can be killed by cooking food properly and the bacteria we found with this gene responded to other antibiotics.”
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said guidelines had been updated to restrict the use of colistin in animals.