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Bacteria resistant to last-resort antibiotics identified in LA County

Roxana Selagea, a Publix Supermarket pharmacy manager, counts out the correct number of antibiotic pills to fill a prescription  August 7, 2007 in Miami, Florida.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
The organism is resistant to the antibiotic colistin, considered a last resort to treat bacteria that are highly resistant to multiple antibiotics.

A drug-resistant E. coli bacteria has been identified in a Los Angeles County resident, according to the county Department of Public Health. It's the first time that bacteria containing a specific gene, known as mcr-1, has been reported in the state.

The patient was an older man who likely contracted the organism during international travel, according to the health department. The patient was hospitalized and later died, but health officials said the infection did not contribute to the cause of death. Officials said there is no evidence the organism has spread within local hospitals or clinics, but declined to reveal further details about the case.

The gene is carried on a piece of DNA that can be transmitted between bacteria. Its identification in Los Angeles County is noteworthy because it is resistant to the antibiotic colistin, considered a last resort to treat bacteria that are highly resistant to multiple antibiotics.

Bacteria containing the gene was first identified in the country in a Pennsylvania patient in May 2016. Since then, it has been reported in five additional states, including California. It's been identified in eight people and two food animals, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dawn Terashita, acting deputy director for acute communicable disease control at the L.A. County health department, says she's concerned about the continuing spread of bacteria containing the gene.

"Once we get these organisms that no longer have any antibiotics that can treat them, there's no way to treat infection," she said.

But Terashita said most county residents should not be worried.

"It doesn't generally infect healthy individuals," she said, adding that people are at higher risk if they travel abroad a lot, have underlying medical conditions or have significant contact with health care facilities.

The organism is typically found in gastrointestinal bacteria and spread through exposure with stool, Terashita said. She said studies have found it in humans, food, animals and the environment.

There is very little treatment available to people who are infected with this antibiotic-resistant bacteria, Terashita said, adding, "that's the scary part." She said a laboratory would have to test the bacteria to determine what antibiotic it might be susceptible to; then a provider would prescribe a medication on a case-by-case basis.

In an e-mail message to L.A. County health care providers, health officials said the identification of this organism serves as a reminder of the importance of infection control measures.

This post has been updated.