Superbug heading for the UK

MUTANT and highly toxic strains of the killer superbug MRSA could pose a “serious threat”, even to the healthy, experts warn.

Scientists investigating the new infections, which have already migrated here from the United States, say they are far more powerful than any seen before in this country.

The potentially deadly strains are easily passed between people outside of hospitals and are on the increase in Britain.

One version of the killer bug – called USA300 – is passed easily through skin contact and can lead to a flesh-eating form of pneumonia.

It is resistant to even the most powerful antibiotics and could cause widespread infection and large numbers of deaths if it spreads suddenly.

USA300 has already killed thousands of people in America and is the highest single cause of death there from infectious disease.

It can cause large boils on the skin and lead to fatal blood poisoning or a form of pneumonia that can eat away at lung tissue.

Experts say that as well as beating the best treatments which are currently available, the new form can maintain a higher level of toxicity.

This makes it far more infectious than the strains we see in Britain in many hospitals at the moment and can even infect healthy people.


That means it would be capable of infecting people out in the wider community with no way of bringing it under control.

The new warning comes after the World Health Organisation warned last year that the failure to tackle superbugs could lead to a “nightmare scenario” in which the world has no new drugs to treat patients hit by a resistant strain. Now an MRSA expert from the University of Bath has warned that this highly toxic strain of the disease poses a serious threat to people in Britain.

Typically, people in this country become infected with MRSA in hospital when they are already sick and have a reduced ability to fight the bacteria.

Hospital-acquired MRSA has been causing problems for decades but there has been some success in reducing infections in recent years.

However Dr Ruth Massey, from the university’s department of biology and biochemistry, has now expressed concern about the emergence of a new MRSA bacterium over the past few years in the US capable of infecting healthy people.

She said extra vigilance was required around what is known as PVL-positive community acquired MRSA strains, including USA300.

In a new research paper published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases, Dr Massey and colleagues analyse the way community-acquired MRSAs are able to adapt and fine-tune themselves to spread outside hospitals.

MRSA bacteria in hospitals have not been able to migrate into the community in the same way.

Justine Rudkin, a PhD student working on the project, said: “The community-acquired bacteria have evolved further and are able to maintain a higher level of toxicity while also resisting treatment from antibiotics, making it a much larger problem.

“While we are constantly learning more about MRSA, there is a serious threat posed by this newer strain of bacteria capable of causing disease and even death in perfectly healthy people.

“We need to respond seriously to this threat as it reaches Britain.”

A spokeswoman for the Health Protection Agency said: “The HPA are carrying out active surveillance of this type of bacteria and advise healthcare professionals on correct infection control procedures to reduce the likelihood of spread.”

E.coli outbreak resistant to antibiotics

Scientists have identified ‘an entirely new super-toxic’ strain of E.coli which has infected more than 1,600 people worldwide, including seven in the UK.

Chinese and German researchers have been working round the clock to identify the strain, which has struck people in 10 countries and killed at least 16.

A statement from the Beijing Genomics Institute, which has been working on sequencing the strain, said it contained several genes that were resistant to antibiotics.

Analysis shows the bacterium is an enterohemorrhagic E.coli (EHEC) O104 strain, but is a ‘new serotype’ – not previously involved in any E.coli outbreaks.

More than 90 per cent of the bacterium is the same as a virulent strain that causes serious diarrhoea, but the new strain has ‘also acquired specific sequences’, the statement said.

These are similar to those involved in hemorrhagic colitis and haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS) – a deadly complication of E.coli.

Earlier today, Hilde Kruse, a food safety expert at the World Health Organisation (WHO), told the Associated Press the strain was ‘unique’ and ‘has never been isolated from patients before’.

E.coli bacteria
E.coli bacteria

She said the new strain had ‘various characteristics that make it more virulent and toxin-producing’, although it is not uncommon for bacteria to continually evolve and swap genes.

The most severe E.coli cases are usually seen in children and the elderly, but all age groups are currently affected.

So far, seven people in the UK have been affected by the strain, including three Britons and four German nationals.

According to the Health Protection Agency (HPA), all the UK cases caught the infection in Germany, where the outbreak began, with three now being treated for HUS.

It has issued a warning urging people travelling to Germany to avoid eating raw tomatoes, cucumbers and leafy salad, including lettuce, while experts try to find the source of the outbreak.

Anyone returning from Germany with an illness, including bloody diarrhoea, is also urged to seek medical attention.

Victims can require hospital treatment because HUS affects the blood, kidneys and, in severe cases, the central nervous system.

Dr Dilys Morgan, head of the gastrointestinal, emerging and zoonotic infections department at the HPA, said: ‘The HPA continues to actively monitor the situation very carefully and we are working with the authorities in Germany and with our counterparts across Europe as to the cause of the outbreak.

E.coli bacteria
E.coli bacteria

‘We have alerted health professionals to the situation and advised them to urgently investigate and report suspected cases with a travel history to Germany.’

Cases of HUS and EHEC have continued to rise in Germany in recent days.

Nine patients in Germany have died of HUS and another six of EHEC. One person has also died in Sweden, bringing the total number of deaths to 16, according to WHO.

There are unconfirmed reports of at least one more death.

Many more patients are in hospital, with several needing intensive care, including dialysis.

All cases except two are among people who had recently visited northern Germany. In one case, the person had contact with a visitor from northern Germany.

Professor Brendan Wren, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said EHEC was usually caught from the consumption of meat products, particularly beef.

EHEC is found in the gut microflora of humans and livestock, he added.

‘Improper water/sewage disposal and slurry procedures can contaminate fresh produce, which isn’t cooked, so therefore does not kill adherent bacteria.’

Prof Wren said whole genome DNA sequencing could identify what sparked the outbreak, but ‘as in many food borne disease outbreaks, the real culprit may never be identified and the epidemic just fades away’.

Anthony Hilton, reader in microbiology at Aston University, said: ‘The pattern of infection in this outbreak is unusual in the proportion of adults presenting with HUS, which is normally observed in children, and the bias towards females.

‘If the current strain is indeed a novel virulent type, it will be important to determine if this is simply surface contamination of vegetables or if the organism has developed a mechanism of intracellular invasion and persistence, as that will greatly influence the effectiveness of the simple washing of vegetables intended to be eaten raw as a means of reducing the risk of infection.’

Douglas Noble, lecturer in the centre for primary care and public health at Queen Mary, University of London, said: ‘This is obviously a very serious outbreak of a rare strain of E.coli with the exact source of contamination remaining undetermined.

‘The UK has in recent years been very strong in its response to such threats to human health, and this episode particularly highlights the need for a joined-up public health response across Europe.’

Russia has extended its ban on vegetables to the entire European Union – a move described as disproportionate by EU officials.

Meanwhile, Spain’s prime minister has demanded an explanation from Germany for suggesting Spain’s produce was a possible source of the outbreak.