Superbug Attacks Cystic Fibrosis Patients

Some clinics caring for patients with cystic fibrosis (CF) have been hit with a new and dangerous family of bacteria that resist antibiotic treatment, and experts don’t quite know how the bacteria are being spread, according to a study yesterday in the journal Science. Mycobacterium abscessus is found in soil and water. It causes deadly infections in the lungs of cystic fibrosis patients. While CF, caused by a mutation, isn’t contagious, M. abscessus most certainly is. Between 5% and 10% of CF patients can become infected, but that number is growing, according to researchers. “The bacterium thrives in the excess of thick mucus that builds up in the airways of CF patients—sometimes with fatal results,” Science magazine reports on the study published in Science journal.

Researchers looked at M. abscessus samples taken from 517 patients treated around the world. Participating countries included the Netherlands, the United States, Australia, Britain, Ireland, Sweden, and Denmark. The study “suggests that the bacterium has adapted to humans and that several dangerous strains are spreading from one CF treatment center to the next, from country to country, and even between continents in a silent epidemic.”

What might be happening, researchers suggest, is that when an infected patient coughs, the bacteria may stay airborne or settle on objects that an uninfected patient may later touch. What’s a tougher mystery to solve is exactly how M. abscessus is traveling around the globe. Patient travels, or the movement of contaminated medical devices have been ruled out. Might it be riding with the medical professionals caring for CF patients when they gather for medical conventions?

Andres Floto of Papworth Hospital in the United Kingdom and author of the study, told Science magazine in an email: “Our most likely explanation (although we have no proof of this yet) is that healthy humans might be acting as vectors of transcontinental spread.”

Source: Science magazine