Saint Louis, MO

Global travelers pick up numerous genes that promote microbial resistance

Tyrone Wallace
Kelsey Knight/Unsplash

ST. LOUIS, MO — A new research from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis suggests that new and potentially deadly strains of antimicrobial-resistant superbugs may be coming nearby, and international travelers may carry it with them.

According to Alaric D’Souza, an MD/Ph.D. student at Washington University, international travel contributed to the rapid global increase and spread of antimicrobial resistance even before the pandemic.

He added, “But what’s new here is that we’ve found numerous completely novel genes associated with antimicrobial resistance that suggest a worrisome problem on the horizon.”

The research confirms that international travelers often return home with unexpected new bacterial strains fighting for position among the thousands that generally live inside the gut microbiome.

High-population densities make it easy for these bacteria to be shared among community residents and travelers. They are exposed to these pathogens through contaminated drinking water and food, poorly sanitized restrooms, restaurants, hotel rooms, and public transportation.

Back at home, travelers risk transferring these novel bacteria to family, friends and other residents.

Researchers conducted the study with Maastricht University in the Netherlands. It analyzes the bacterial communities in the gut microbiomes of 190 Dutch adults before and after travel to one of four international regions: Southeastern Asia, South Asia, North Africa, and Eastern Africa. Those are regions where the prevalence of resistance genes is high.

The research team randomly selected fecal samples analyzed as part of the study from a larger, multicenter investigation of about 2,000 Dutch travelers, the majority of whom were tourists.

“We found significant travel-related increases in the acquisition of resistance genes, abundance and diversity encoded by bacteria that are endemic to the region visited,” D’Souza commented. “These findings provide strong support for international travel as a vector for the global spread of clinically important antimicrobial resistance genes and highlight the need for broader surveillance of antimicrobial resistant bacteria in the gut microbiomes of returning travelers.”

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