Overseas travel raises risk of superbug infection

Australians are increasingly returning from overseas with multi-drug-resistant "superbugs", prompting warnings for hospitals to isolate high-risk patients to stop their spread.

Austin Hospital infectious diseases director Lindsay Grayson said that, until recently, superbug infections in Australia were largely confined to patients with weakened immune systems who had taken lots of antibiotics.

But, he said, the Austin was now seeing patients infected with superbugs after stays in foreign hospitals.

Writing in The Medical Journal of Australia, doctors from the Austin said they had treated 10 patients infected with superbugs after overseas travel between December 2011 and February 2013.

In one case, a 66-year-old man developed a ruptured bowel that became infected with superbugs after surgery in a Greek hospital.

Once stable, he was flown home to Australia and treated at the Austin, where doctors ran out of antibiotic options and eventually had to remove the man's bowel to successfully rid him of the infections.

Strict infection control measures were taken during his three-month stay, which included putting him in a single room with a dedicated bathroom, cleaning his room daily with bleach, avoiding use of shared equipment and enforcing contact precautions, including the use of gowns and gloves. Professor Grayson said healthy bacteria in people's bowels were being replaced by superbugs after they ate contaminated food or drank water overseas or spent time in dirty hospitals.

Some people's bowels were colonised with the superbugs which did not cause them to become ill while others developed infections resistant to antibiotics.

Professor Grayson said superbugs were becoming so common that his hospital was now assuming returned travellers had been colonised and could infect others and put them in isolation until testing confirmed otherwise.

Patients infected by superbugs had travelled to various countries, including Croatia, Colombia, India, the Philippines and Mauritius.

Professor Grayson and his colleagues said the rapid spread of superbugs was alarming. They said Australia was fortunate that they were not yet endemic but warned international travel meant superbugs were "no longer limited by geographical boundaries".

The doctors said Australian authorities should consider requiring hospitals to report superbug cases "to document the problem and direct resources to this growing threat at a national level".

They said hospitals needed protocols for screening high-risk patients to prevent the superbugs' spread.