In 2009 a mutated strain of Acinetobacter baumannii caused a global pandemic that infected more than 20 million people and killed about a quarter of them
Widespread activity of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that cause infectious diseases in hospitals or in the community, such as those currently known as the 21st century “superbugs”, was dismissed as “naive hope” or a “super bug” in 1969 by a distinguished group of US medical scientists.
However, today that scientific opinion has been challenged by a growing number of microbial pathologists and scientists who have made recent findings that suggest a killer flu-like new pathogen with worldwide impact could soon be the real deal.
In 2009 a mutated strain of Acinetobacter baumannii caused a global pandemic that infected more than 20 million people and killed about a quarter of them. The pathogen, often clinically known as a “super bug”, caused acute lung infections in a great many patients, including seniors in nursing homes, and has long been linked to the spread of age-related, and potentially deadly, respiratory diseases such as pneumonia.
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This rapid, clinical emergence of an insect-borne pathogen – one that entered human society freely and via aerosol spread during the 70s and early 80s – has now been implicated in a dramatic weakening of antibiotics and chemical control agents, said lead researcher James Marsh, professor of pathobiology at Cardiff University, and director of the Welsh Bio-Infectious Disease Research Unit.
“The current wave of influenza-like infections associated with superbugs have made us second-guess our 1964 prediction, and focus more on the possibility of a new modern infectious super bug,” said Marsh.
“While the late-night sequence in 2011-12 and 2015-16 of large-scale transmission of clinical colds and infections among aged healthcare patients, in particular, provided evidence for the possibility of a new large-scale viral pandemic, the likelihood of a current pandemic looks very low,” Marsh said.
Previous estimates of the risk of a new mass-transmission human pathogen predicted by clinical microbiology at the time of its discovery reflected a very small probability, he said. “When we advanced the assumption of a current virulent coliform – Acinetobacter baumannii – in 1977 we had a 50% probability of a new human pathogen occurring, and by 1996 we had the probability of a new virulent human pathogen predicted by clinical microbiology of less than 1%.”
The question the study raises, said Marsh, is whether we have learnt from the 1969 cover-up.
“When the Johns Hopkins team wrote their seminal article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences the concern was about unpatented industrial antibiotics. But now we have a drug-resistant, drug-resistant infection of broad mammalian origin,” he said.
Joining Marsh in questioning whether antibiotic resistance is in fact as endemic as many are convinced, was a joint set of findings published last month in the British Medical Journal that suggested the current antibiotic shortage. The paper linked shortages to the nature of microbial populations, higher antibiotic-resistant bacteria arising in developing nations, and a shift in food-borne infection patterns in developed nations.