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Superbug: Neither Super Nor a Bug

Bacteria have developed a new way to resist a sweeping array of antibiotics, raising alarms about the spread of infections that might defy nearly all treatments.

Three Americans were recently diagnosed with the new infection, which they acquired during medical treatment in India and Pakistan. Media reports have dubbed the new infection a "superbug."

So how worried should we be?

While the infection is worth taking seriously, experts say, the public health implications are uncertain, and the finding has been widely misunderstood. Multi drug-resistant bacteria have been around for decades, they say. Furthermore, there are still two kinds of antibiotics that fight the new infection, which crops up only in hospitals not in communities.

And while the new bug is highly resistant to drugs, it is not spreading rapidly -- at least not in the United States -- and it is not particularly deadly.

In fact, it is not actually a bug at all. Instead, the drug resistance comes from a gene called NDM-1 that gets passed from one kind of bacteria to another.

"Calling it a superbug doesn't quite make sense," said Stephen Calderwood, chief of the infectious disease division at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, who recently treated someone with the infection. "It is highly resistant, but it doesn't make someone more sick. And as far as we know, it doesn't more easily go from one person to another."

Rather than sparking fears of an imminent epidemic, he added, the arrival of the gene points to the need for new kinds of antibiotics, tighter controls on existing antibiotics in some places, better international cooperation on health prevention, and more careful controls on medical tourism.

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