how invincible salmonella may give you the worst food poisoning ever
Doctors, scientists, and public health experts have been ringing the alarm bells about overuse of antibiotics and the emergence of new superbugs for years, searching for new strategies to counter infections modern medicine can no longer treat. As part of this process, research labs are trying to inventory just how widespread the problem is becoming, and what they’ve just found in a stool sample from 2014 is very alarming. A person who returned from China with a nasty salmonella infection picked up a strain with a mutation in a gene called mcr-3.1, which renders it immune to an antibiotic called colistin, the drug of last resort against particularly obstinate gastrointestinal infections.
The good news is that the test subject was just sickened, and the vast majority of salmonella infections are very unpleasant but survivable, so we’re not going to playing Russian roulette with our lunch anytime soon. But if your immune system is compromised, or you’re weakened by advanced age or illness so your body can’t fight back, it can require urgent medical attention and fatal cases are, unfortunately, far from unknown, numbering roughly 450 deaths in the U.S. and 155,000 worldwide every year. Hardier strains with the mcr-3.1 mutation are bound to push those number significantly higher if we can’t come up with brand new treatments able to drive them back.
These bacteria vastly outnumber us and a few years for us are thousands of generations for them, giving immunity to our best weapons against them trillions of chances to spread every month. Even worse, the Trump administration is attempting to make food safety inspections less independent and rigorous, which is the absolute worst thing one could do when faced with the very real threat of superbugs making their way into our ecosystem and contaminating the things we eat and drink. Instead, we should be scaling up inspections and giving experts more power and authority over our food supply because failure to clean up our act across the board means that vulnerable people will die as a result.
Certainly, profit margins over the short term may suffer if corporations aren’t just allowed to gamble on whether their customers will survive a nasty mutant contamination, but over the long term, living customers are far more profitable than ones exploding from both ends before their organs begin to fail. Likewise, the public also needs to be properly educated about how antibiotics work, given far fewer of them on a regular basis, and know that it’s vitally important that patients complete their entire course, not just stop taking pills when they feel better and allowing the strongest bacteria in their bodies to survive and reproduce, passing on their new defenses to future generations and new strains.
The bottom line is that we’re being given a while lot of warnings that our current trajectory in treating bacterial infections while constantly overusing antibiotics in agriculture and doctors’ offices or making them available over the counter is unsustainable and will end very badly for tens of millions. How many more of these warnings do we need to get before we start taking this as seriously as we should and treat it as the emergency it is?
See: Monte, D., (2019) Multidrug- and colistin-resistant Salmonella enterica 4,,12:i:- sequence type 34 carrying the mcr-3.1 gene on the IncHI2 plasmid recovered from a human, Journal of Medical Microbiology, DOI: 10.1099/jmm.0.001012