Doctors in Detroit recently amputated the toes of a 40-year-old woman who was not responding to antibiotics and discovered she was infected with a virulent new strain of staph bacteria. The new bacteria became totally resistant to all antibiotics by stealing genetic material from another bacteria. Dr. Fred Tenover of the CDC says, “This is an organism that could cause very serious disease if it was in the community.” Experts think that eventually so many bacteria will develop resistance that antibiotics won’t work any more, and hospitals will be filled with people dying from what used to be curable infections.

Staph aureus is a common bacteria that infects about 400,000 U.S. hospital patients a year. Doctors have been expecting?and dreading?the emergence of a new strain that is resistant to vancomycin, the antibiotic of last resort. Now that the strain has arrived, “From a scientific point of view, it’s probably one of the most remarkable and significant events in my lifetime,” says Dr. Steve Lerner of the Detroit Medical Center.

Researcher William Brown remembers when he first heard that the woman had a staph infection that was resistant to vancomycin. “I figured it was a mistake,” he says. He took a sample of the bacteria to a special isolation room, used for handling dangerous microbes, and tested it for vancomycin resistance. When it tested resistant again, he remembers, “I thought, ‘Oh my God. This is it.'” He got on the phone fast, to warn other doctors and keep the bacteria from spreading.

If antibiotics stop working, it will return us to the days before they were discovered, when people died from what are today considered ordinary infections. In the 1920s, British scientist Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, the first antibiotic. By the mid-1950s, most staph strains in the U.S. were resistant to it, so the pharmaceutical industry developed new antibiotics, which they?ve continued to do ever since. Ferdinand Massari of drugmaker Pharmacia says it’s getting harder to find new drugs. It takes at least a decade and $100 million to develop a new one and, “For every one drug that you see in the store, there are probably 10,000 that were tested and didn’t make it,” he says.

Staph aureus can live in the nose of a healthy person and cause no symptoms. About 5 to 10% of people in Michigan probably have it and don’t know it, says Brown. However, if it infects the blood, it can quickly become fatal. One reason this happened first in Detroit may be that local intravenous drug users in the 1970s began mixing antibiotics with heroin, trying to avoid infection from dirty needles. “Since our part of the country overused vancomycin compared to other areas, that’s why we saw this problem with staph aureus,” says Dr. Marcus Zervos. The resistant bacteria then infected people who didn’t use illicit drugs.

Doctors are hoping that this will scare us into limiting our use of antibiotics?except that nobody seems to have heard about the case, despite the fact that it shook up doctors around the world.

“In the scheme of public health threats, this has to rank close to the top,” says David Ropeik of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis. “It’s a serious threat now, and it’s getting worse fast. It’s dramatically more of a public health threat than pesticides on food.”

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