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Germ Sleuths Go High-Tech as U.S. Labs Get Illumina Sequencers

After salmonella poisoned people in Minnesota in 2014, state germ sleuths already had a suspicion of what the culprit might be: raw, stuffed chicken that had caused close to half a dozen earlier outbreaks.

The question was, where had it come from, and who still had it in their freezers? Detailed DNA analysis showed six people were infected with an identical salmonella germ found on meat labeled chicken Kiev. Using a technology called whole genome sequencing, Minnesota health officials were able to determine precisely which cases were linked to the outbreak and track the infections back to a manufacturer. A health alert was issued, product was pulled from shelves, tested and recalled. The outbreak was halted with only one hospitalization for salmonellosis.

Now state health labs want to use the same technology to identify even more dangerous and insidious bacterial strains: those with drug resistance.

Computer analysis of complete genomes of bacteria is enabling disease-trackers like Medus to match strains collected from patients, food, animals and the environment, and identify outbreaks, as well as their likely source and mode of transmission. It’s giving scientists an earlier jump on emerging pathogens, especially those not stopped by life-saving antibiotics. Failure to act on drug-resistant infections will lead to 10 million extra deaths a year and cost the global economy $100 trillion by 2050, a report released by the U.K. government in February found.

Medicine Threat

“I don’t think you can overstate the severity of the risk of antibiotic resistance,” Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a telephone interview. “It is not just about the infections that people may get that are hard to treat -- pneumonias, urinary tract infections, skin infections -- it’s actually about the fabric of modern medicine, because we assume we can treat infections that come along with transplants, cancer chemotherapy and arthritis treatments, but that assumption is increasingly incorrect.”

With antibiotic-resistant bacteria causing 2 million illnesses and about 23,000 deaths a year in...


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