In 2008, in a hospital in New Delhi (India), we found for the first time a protein that can give superpowers to some bacteria that make us sick. The NDM-1, when incorporated into its genome, makes them resistant to antibiotics that should kill them. Two years after that discovery, the protein was already free in the waters of the city and has since been found in more than 100 countries.
Resistance to antibiotics is one of the greatest threats to global health and it is estimated that around 700,000 people die every year from infections that have become immune to the available drugs. The General Assembly of the United Nations signed a declaration in 2016 to coordinate global efforts to combat the threat, because the enemy, as shown in a study published yesterday, has an almost unlimited capacity for expansion.
A recent report estimated that super-resistant bacteria kill around 33,000 Europeans per year
In a work that is published in the magazine Environmental International, an international team of scientists explains that he found this antibiotic resistance gene in soil samples taken in the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard in 2013. "That in only three years a resistance to antibiotics from India to Svalbard shows how easy it is It is the dispersion. The world we live in is very small for bacteria, "says Carlos Pedrós-Alió, a research professor at the Barcelona Institute of Marine Sciences (CSIC).
The polar regions are among the least disturbed by human activity and that is why this region of the Arctic was chosen to try to know which genes were related to the resistance to antibiotics that existed before the appearance of these drugs. In total, they conducted forty polar soil surveys among which they found 131 antibiotic resistance genes, many of which had arrived from outside the region.
The authors do not know exactly how those resistances got there, but they suppose that they could do it through the feces of birds or the humans that visit this region. As Pedrós-Alió explains, in South America it has been observed that animals such as "flamencos carry bacteria to lagoons found in very remote regions of the Andes". "They can transport them in the stomach, in the feathers, in the legs …", he continues and there can also be exchanges with species adapted to extreme conditions of salinity or resistance to solar radiation.
Clare McCann, the researcher at the University of Newcastle who heads the study, believes that to fight against the diffusion of resistance to antibiotics, understanding "how they are transmitted through water and soil is critical" and that to control this transmission it will be necessary improve "waste management and water quality on a global scale".
Juan Pablo Horcajada, head of the infectious diseases service at the Hospital del Mar in Barcelona, agrees on the need for global measures in the face of the expansion of resistance. "It is a striking news, but it is still an example of how with respect to the dissemination of resistance we must think in a global key and that more investment in research is needed to know how resistances are being distributed", he explains. As an example of the measures that should be applied worldwide to avoid creating new resistances, Horcajada talks about the use of antibiotics for animals. "On the one hand, they can be used to treat infectious diseases, something that is regulated and accepted, but they are also used to fatten farm animals," he says. "This is forbidden in some countries, but in others, no, and that practice causes bacteria to generate new resistances," he adds. "To avoid this, we need a coordinated and global effort that is well financed," he concludes.
Recent research by the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control estimated that 33,000 Europeans die each year from infections caused by bacteria that have developed resistance to antibiotics. The impact is according to the institution similar to the one added by the flu, AIDS and tuberculosis. And the ability of bacteria to adapt suggests that, if nothing is done, these numbers will get worse.