Latest 'Superbug' Got You Down? Worry, But Don't Freak Out : Shots - Health News Bacteria in South Asia have picked up a powerful ability to thwart most common antibiotics. Now scientists fret that the bugs, which have spread around the world, present a growing health threat.
NPR logo Latest 'Superbug' Got You Down? Worry, But Don't Freak Out

Latest 'Superbug' Got You Down? Worry, But Don't Freak Out

Some kinds of bacteria, like this E. coli specimen, are starting to pick up a powerful new ability to resist antibiotics. Janice Haney Carr/CDC hide caption

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Janice Haney Carr/CDC

Amazing how a curiously named enzyme — New Delhi metallo-β-lactamase 1 — can flip out so many people so fast.

That mouthful, or NDM-1 for short, gives bacteria superpowers against most antibiotics. Researchers say they've found a gene that makes the stuff on rings of DNA that pass easily from one bacterium to another.

And these drug-resistant bacteria, which appear to have gotten their start in South Asia, have now been found in people all over the world. Many had traveled to India, where liberal non-prescription use of antibiotics contributes to the rise of drug-resistant bacteria.

Back in June, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told U.S. doctors to be on the lookout for the new type of resistant bug, after finding them in three patients who'd received medical care in India and Pakistan.

Maryn McKenna, our go-to geek on bacterial resistance and author of Superbug, digs into the details on her blog. NDM-1 is a real threat, she writes, because it has "spread widely, been transported globally, and brings common bacteria up to the brink of untreatable."

Combine those factors with a lack of experimental antibiotics that work against the sorts of bacteria armed with NDM-1, and the sweat beads start flowing down our furrowed brow.

For better or worse, though, we have to remind you that there are already plenty of bacteria out there that evade the most common antibiotic bullets.

As Dr. Martin J. Blaser, chairman of medicine at New York University Langone Medical Center tells the New York Times: "They’re all bad. Is NDM-1 more worrisome than MRSA? It’s too early to judge."

And, as recent data show, we can make progress against even MRSA. Mom was right about washing your hands well and often. Infection rates for MRSA are down in hospitals, and it looks like better hygiene is part of the reason why.