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Task force will target drug-resistant superbugs

Dr. Howard Zucker, commissioner for the New York

Dr. Howard Zucker, commissioner for the New York State Department of Health, testifies during a joint legislative budget hearing on health and Medicaid on Monday, Jan. 25, 2016, in Albany. Credit: AP

The State Health Commissioner announced establishment of a special task force Thursday to combat drug-resistant superbugs in the wake of a novel antibiotic-repelling gene that causes bacteria to rebuff every antibacterial compound on pharmacy shelves.

Dr. Howard A. Zucker, the commissioner, said the panel would be multidisciplinary in an effort to tackle one of the biggest crises in medicine — the growing number of bacteria that now carry genes allowing the bugs to thwart the last drugs in doctors’ arsenals.

An urgent concern is a gene — mcr-1 — with suspected origins in China that has already circumnavigated the globe, transported by carrier humans and animals exported for their meat. The gene has infiltrated bacteria in this country that infected at least one New York patient and another in Pennsylvania.

The gene carries DNA coding for “pan resistance,” which means resistance to every known antibiotic, including antique drugs, such as colistin. That medication, a product of the 1950s, was forced back into service, doctors said, after of the emergence of CRE, carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae, so called nightmare bacteria.

“Although the latest developments do not constitute an immediate public health threat, it is imperative that we prepare ourselves and coordinate with partners throughout the healthcare system and the state to prevent this from becoming an emergency,” Zucker said in a statement Thursday.

“This is the strategy we adopted for successfully controlling Ebola, Legionella, and the Zika virus,” he said.

Zucker announced the task force Thursday in Albany during a meeting titled a Roundtable Discussion on Antimicrobial Resistance in Health Care. The discussion was co-hosted by the Department of Health, Greater New York Hospital Association and the Healthcare Association of New York State.

No evidence exists to suggest that superbugs carrying mcr-1 and CRE have swapped genes to create even more potent strains. CRE has been circulating worldwide for more than a decade. Thousands of cases have been diagnosed in New York hospital patients in recent years.

Even though the state announced the effort to fight resistance, it did not initially notify the public that mcr-1 had been identified in New York, although state officials had notified hospitals and other health care facilities.

The gene’s presence was revealed publicly in June by a team of researchers at JMI Laboratories in Iowa, which had studied the New York samples and published its findings in a scientific journal.

Newsday asked the state health department at that time whether the lab’s information was correct. Officials confirmed that a case was under investigation stemming from a 2015 infection. The Patient Zero, who was neither identified by name or city in New York, was said to have been infected with E. coli that carried the mcr-1 gene.

Even though new genes are emerging that resist the most powerful pharmaceuticals available, the crisis is not new.

“It’s a growing problem and it hasn’t crept up on us because it has been building for a long time,” said Dr. Sunil Sood, an infectious diseases specialist and chief of pediatrics at Southside Hospital in Bay Shore.

“Resistance seems to build up in a stepwise manner as bacteria acquire one gene after another. It has been a progression since 1947, right after penicillin was introduced.

Sood said doctors now have a very limited number of antibiotics because the development of these drugs has not kept pace with the bacterial capacity to outfox the medications.

“Our only tool right now is to use antibiotics judiciously,” Sood said.

The newly announced task force will work under the direction of Zucker and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, according to the statement released by the state health department Thursday.

Task force members are expected to present a report of recommendations by Dec. 31, 2016 and show evidence of coordinated activities aimed at combating — and preventing — resistant superbugs at that time.


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