We are on the verge of a ‘post-antibiotic’ world, according to a report published in The Lancet.
Researchers in China identified a mutation in bacteria that renders it resistant to drugs, including colistin, which is used to treat the most drug-resistant infections.
The newly discovered mutation, the MCR-1 gene, was identified in humans and livestock. It was found to be present in a fifth of pigs, 15 per cent of raw meat samples and in 16 human patients.
They say that the resistance has spread geographically, to Laos and Malaysia, but also between strains of bacteria, including E. coli and Klebsiella pneumonia.
The researchers say that these early signs of antibiotic resistance should act as a global wake-up call. They believe that if nothing is done to combat it, resistance will spread globally, meaning that common illnesses could become fatal, and certain types of life-saving surgery would no longer be possible.
Although resistance to colistin has been observed before, the newly discovered mutation is very easily passed between bacteria.
Professor Timothy Walsh, who collaborated on the study, told the BBC News website: ‘All the key players are now in place to make the post-antibiotic world a reality.
‘If MCR-1 becomes global, which is a case of when not if, and the gene aligns itself with other antibiotic resistance genes, which is inevitable, then we will have very likely reached the start of the post-antibiotic era.
‘At that point if a patient is seriously ill, say with E. coli, then there is virtually nothing you can do,’ he said.
The Chinese government’s agricultural and health ministries are meeting this weekend to discuss the possibility of banning the veterinary use of colistin.