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Cloaked "Phantom" Bacteria Threaten the Middle East

Jun 04, 2014 03:32 PM EDT
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Already highly dangerous bacteria called carbapenem resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE) have learned to "cloak" themselves with genetic material, effectively hiding from the body's natural defenses. Experts are calling these new types of CRE "phantom bacteria" and have already found a multitude of them in the Middle East.

According to a study published in the journal Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, these hard-to-detect superbugs may soon find their way into other parts of the world through international travel, just as other diseases such as Middle East respiratory system (MERS) already have.

Researcher Hosam Mamoon Zowawi, from the University of Queensland, said the "phantom" superbugs were found during a field survey of antibiotic-resistant microbes in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain.

"Not only were the bacteria widespread, but they were found to be carrying genetic material which empowers them to resist antibiotics and avoid detection in routine laboratory testing," Zoawawi said in a statement.

And since these bugs are difficult to detect, he added, they avoid being treated with the right antibiotics, allowing them to spread not only to new hosts, but from patient-to-patient.

Close examination of these "phantom" CRE has allowed the research team to develop an early interpretation as to how the bacteria cloaks itself, stealing away into a host and colonizing long before it is finally noticed.

Zowawi and his colleagues are now in the midst of developing new diagnostic techniques based off of their findings in hopes that they can help identify this elusive superbug fast enough to prevent it from becoming a global problem.

"We hope this will help in advancing the surveillance of superbugs by reducing the turnaround time to identify the deadly bacteria," Zowawi said. "It will also assist clinicians to apply targeted treatment and implement infection control precautions sooner."

Results detailing the identification of the CRE superbug were published in the journal Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy on March 17.

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