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Superbacteria seep through Finland’s borders

The last few years have seen more cases of antibiotic-resistant superbacteria infections in Finland. Even special strains of antibiotics that are saved for difficult cases may not necessarily have an effect on the so-called superbugs.

Moni turisti saa tietämättään elimistöönsä bakteerin, joka monesti häviää itsestään pois.
Most cases are picked up on international travels. Image: Narong Sangnak / EPA

Finland has been dealing with growing numbers of isolated superbacteria cases in the last few years. Most of the bugs are brought back from trips abroad.

Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, festers in open wounds and is spread by touch, while extended spectrum beta-lactamase, or ESBL, is an intestinal bacteria that normally causes urine infections. Lastly, carbapenemase-producing Enterobacteriaceae, or CPE, is a bacterium that can kill up to half of patients who contract bloodstream infections.

MRSA became well known in Finland in the early 2000s as the culprit behind several hospital epidemics. Later, several different intestinal bacteria reached Finland’s shores, with ESBL crossing the borders with returning travellers.

There have only been a dozen or so CPE cases reported in Finland each year since the turn of the century, and the majority of these have been identified in people who have experienced no symptoms from the bacteria, but have been found to be carrying it.

Antibiotics are no help

These three kinds of infections are referred to as superbacteria, as they each have antimicrobial resistance. This means that developed medicines may not be able to help. Resistance arises in one of three ways: natural resistance in certain types of bacteria, genetic mutations, or by one species acquiring resistance from another.

Helsinki University professor Anu Kantele specialises in the study of infectious diseases. She says that the superbacteria develop their antibiotic resistance in phases, and once they have reached their peak, no known antibiotics can beat them.

Kantele says Finland’s history of superbug infections illustrates this development perfectly, even if Finland has had relatively few cases in international comparisons.

Graphics.
Image: THL / Yle

The National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) estimates that only 2 to 8 percent of Finns carry a superbug in their system at present, in other words, anywhere from 100,000 to 500,000 people. Only a small percentage experience symptoms, while most never realize they have been infected.

10m dead by 2050?

Even so, superbacteria have the world on edge. A report released in Britain in the spring says that if nothing is done, antibiotic-resistant bacteria will spread to kill 10 million people a year by 2050.

Superbacteria hit poor countries the hardest, as antibiotics are generally widely available without a doctor’s prescription and hygiene levels are questionable. Even so, the bugs cause 25,000 deaths in the EU countries each year. In Greek hospitals, CPE infections are already widespread.

In Finland, however, it is still very rare to die from a superbug.

Professor Anu Kantele says most Finnish residents get the superbacteria on trips abroad. Her research team studied more than 400 people who had travelled to the tropics and found that a full 20 percent of them returned with traces of the ESBL bacteria in their system.

90 percent lose ESBL infection within one year

Travellers that fell ill with diarrhoea during their trip and took antibiotics to treat it were noticeably more likely to contract the superbug.  Four-fifths of travellers to India that did this came home with ESBL.

Normally, a healthy intestinal tract doesn’t allow new bacteria to invade. But a course of antibiotics is just the boost it needs, for while the drugs kill the cause of the diarrhoea, they also kill the gut’s good bacteria that fight off the intruders. This weakens the body’s natural resistance and allows the superbug to infiltrate the ranks.

Kantele nevertheless points out that 90 percent of the people that return home carrying the disease in their intestines lose the bacterium within a year of their infection and never exhibit any symptoms.

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