People who travel abroad can unknowingly spread antibiotic resistance


Travellers at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, the Netherlands

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People in the Netherlands who travel abroad are unknowingly contributing to the rise of antibiotic resistance by picking up gut bacteria containing drug-resistance genes while overseas then returning home. The same is probably true of travellers elsewhere who visit countries with a high prevalence of resistant bacteria.

John Penders at Maastricht University in the Netherlands and his colleagues took faecal swabs of 190 Dutch travellers before and after trips to countries in South-East Asia, South Asia, North Africa and eastern Africa, and analysed the bacteria in the samples.

The team found that these travellers came back with gut microbiomes containing bacteria with many more and varied genes for antibiotic resistance than when they left.

“We know that antimicrobial resistance is a global problem, but we also know that certain countries have a much higher prevalence than other countries,” says Penders.

Johan Bengtsson-Palme at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden conducted a similar, but smaller, study six years ago. “My impression then was that there are a few resistance genes that are very widely circulating,” he says. “This study shows that this problem is broader than that. There’s an entire arsenal of different resistance that you pick up during travel.”

The presence of these resistance genes doesn’t pose a direct threat to travellers as long as they are healthy. It only becomes a problem if they get an infection that becomes difficult to treat, or if they come into contact with critically ill people and spread the resistant genes.

“The longer the microbiome stays in that state, where they have acquired extra resistance genes, the more opportunity it has to spread,” says Bram van Bunnik at the University of Edinburgh, UK.

Journal reference: Genome medicine, DOI: 10.1186/s13073-021-00893-z

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