Doctors in the U.K. have observed the exact moment when a new strain of drug resistant bacteria evolved in a patient. These ?superbugs? are new bacteria that cannot be treated with existing antibiotics. Relatively harmless bacteria are capable of turning into superbugs when they acquire new genetic material from other bacteria that have become resistant to various antibiotics, usually from overexposure to the drugs.

Until now, no one had been able to pinpoint exactly how a regular bug turned into a superbug. This changed when a baby who had been hospitalized from birth because of breathing problems picked up a respiratory tract infection. It was identified as a normal, non-resistant Staphylococcus bacteria and the usual antibiotics were given.

The infection cleared up but then returned several days later, and this time a swab showed that a different strain of Staph was to blame. Doctors had to switch to new antibiotics in order to defeat it. They were confused because the baby had not been exposed to anyone carrying the new strain of bacteria.

Analysis of the 2 strains of bacteria showed that they were identical in many ways, suggesting that one had evolved from the other. The new antibiotic-resistant strain was compared to other, similar strains but was different from all of them. The evolution took place because the original strain acquired DNA from nearby, non-disease causing antibiotic-resistant bacteria, that gave it the ability to fight off various antibiotics. It became a totally new strain of bacteria, but it died off quickly after the baby was given new antibiotics.

In most cases, antibiotic-resistant bacteria become common because antibiotics kill off the weaker strains. This happens when doctors use too many antibiotics or when people eat meat from cows or chickens that have been given feed laced with antibiotics.

Studies in the U.K. show that more than 10 percent of children there are carrying bacteria that is resistant to at least one antibiotic. Little is known about how these resistant strains of bacteria may be spreading in communities. Surprisingly, many children were carrying bacteria that was resistant to drugs that the children themselves had never been given. For instance, some healthy children had bacteria resistant to the antibiotic which is used to treat children with cystic fibrosis in order to protect them from lung infections.

Bacteria is easily passed from person to person or from animals to people, but most of it never causes illness unless it enters a wound or the person?s immune system is weak. Some highly-resistant strains of bacteria can be treated with only a tiny number of antibiotics. If bacteria become resistant to these drugs or if patients suffer side effects from them, there may be no drug treatment left at all.

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