Hospitals across Europe are blamed for the spread of a deadly superbug

Hospitals across Europe are blamed for the spread of a deadly superbug amid a six-fold spike in deaths from the antibiotic-resistant bacteria

  • Klebsiella pneumoniae cause wound infections, pneumonia and meningitis
  • Genetically different groups of antibiotic-resistant strains are found in hospitals
  • Similarities within countries suggest they’re spreading within health systems
  • Experts warn better measures are needed to control the spread of the bacteria  

Hospitals are speeding up the spread of bacteria so resistant to antibiotics that they’re almost incurable, scientists have warned.

Researchers looked at samples of antibiotic-resistant Klebsiella pneumoniae bacteria, which can cause pneumonia and meningitis, in hospitals across Europe.

They found the number of people dying from these superbug infections was six times higher in 2015 than in 2007, with more than 2,000 deaths.

And strains of the bacteria were very similar among hospitals in the same countries, but different from those in other countries.

This suggests, they said, that hospitals and national health services are fostering the growth of the deadly bugs within their own countries.

It comes after recent research in the UK found NHS hospital gowns harbour antibiotic-resistant bacteria and even bleaching may not get rid of them.

Scientists found antibiotic-resistant strains of the Klebsiella pneumoniae bacteria (pictured) are forming in genetically different enclaves in hospitals and health services around Europe

Scientists from the Wellcome Sanger Institute near Cambridge and the University of Freiburg in Germany carried out the research.

In an analysis of 2,000 samples of the K.pneumoniae bacteria they found many were resistant to a class of antibiotics called carbapenems.

Carbapenems are high-strength antibiotics used for serious infections and often reserved for bacteria known to be resistant to other drugs.

They’re last-line drugs and, if they don’t work, doctors have few options remaining.

An inability to treat K.pneumoniae poses a serious health threat because the bacteria can cause pneumonia, wound infections or meningitis.

The similarities among strains within hospitals and countries, but their difference to other countries’ strains with the same resistance, led the researchers to believe the bacteria are thriving in, and being spread, in hospitals.

‘Our findings imply hospitals are the key facilitator of transmission,’ said Dr Sophia David.

‘Over half of the samples carrying a carbapenemase gene were closely related to others collected from the same hospital, suggesting that the bacteria are spreading from person-to-person primarily within hospitals.’


Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are those which have developed to be strong enough to survive treatment with previously effective medicines.

Exposure to antibiotics in small amounts or when there is no infection  increases the risk of bacteria getting used to the medicine.

Farm animals being kept to produce meat are sometimes fed antibiotics, many of which are the same as those used to treat humans, to make them grow larger faster. 

In a natural environment, animals would be exposed to bacteria and then use energy to fight off infection and build up immunity.

Antibiotics remove the need for this immune reaction by killing bacteria immediately, meaning more of the animal’s energy can be used for the body to grow larger. Therefore, the farmer gets more meat. 

However, bacteria are becoming resistant to these antibiotics because they’re constantly exposed to them, meaning the antibiotic-resistant bacteria – the superbugs – build up inside the animal.

These are then passed into the human food chain when the animals are slaughtered and sold as meat, or in their milk or if their manure is used to fertilise crop farms. 

Antibiotic-resistance is believed to be being driven by the overuse of antibiotics and their presence in the environment.

The more time bacteria spend exposed to low, non-lethal doses of the drugs, the more they are able to evolve to cope with and resist the medicines.

The World Health Organization says antibiotic resistance is one of the gravest threats to human health and once-minor infections could one day become deadly.

Wellcome and Freiburg’s research found 2,097 people died because of carbapenem-resistant K.pneumoniae in Europe in 2015.

This was a six-fold increase on the 341 deaths in 2007.

They looked at samples of the bacteria from 244 hospitals across the continent and examined their genetic material to find signs of resistance.

When antibiotics stop working medics have no other options for treating antibiotic infections, and they may end up deadly.

Babies, old people and those with weak immune systems because of serious illness are the most at risk.

The team said hospitals could be aiding the bacteria’s spread because the wide use of antibiotics allowed strains to mutate more quickly.

Recent research found hospital gowns in the UK still harbour antibiotic-resistant bacteria even after they’ve been disinfected with chlorine.

Hardened strains of Clostridium difficile (C.diff), which cause diarrhoea and vomiting, were found on gowns which had been washed in line with NHS protocols.

Experts are calling for more to be done to try and control the spread of the bacteria and reduce infections.

Freiburg’s Professor Hajo Grundmann said: ‘We are optimistic that with good hospital hygiene, which includes early identification and isolation of patients carrying these bacteria, we can not only delay the spread of these pathogens, but also successfully control them.

‘This research emphasises the importance of infection control and ongoing genomic surveillance of antibiotic-resistant bacteria to ensure we detect new resistant strains early and act to combat the spread of antibiotic resistance.’

The paper was published in the journal Nature Microbiology. 


Antibiotics have been doled out unnecessarily by GPs and hospital staff for decades, fueling once harmless bacteria to become superbugs. 

The World Health Organization has previously warned if nothing is done the world was headed for a ‘post-antibiotic’ era.

It claimed common infections, such as chlamydia, will become killers without immediate answers to the growing crisis.

Bacteria can become drug resistant when people take incorrect doses of antibiotics, or they are given out unnecessarily. 

Chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies claimed in 2016 that the threat of antibiotic resistance is as severe as terrorism.

Figures estimate that superbugs will kill ten million people each year by 2050, with patients succumbing to once harmless bugs.

Around 700,000 people already die yearly due to drug-resistant infections including tuberculosis (TB), HIV and malaria across the world. 

Concerns have repeatedly been raised that medicine will be taken back to the ‘dark ages’ if antibiotics are rendered ineffective in the coming years.

In addition to existing drugs becoming less effective, there have only been one or two new antibiotics developed in the last 30 years.

In September, the World Health Organisation warned antibiotics are ‘running out’ as a report found a ‘serious lack’ of new drugs in the development pipeline.

Without antibiotics, caesarean sections, cancer treatments and hip replacements would also become incredibly ‘risky’, it was said at the time.  

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