OVERSEAS travel is emerging as an important factor behind the spread of antibiotic-resistant superbugs, as holidaymakers, particularly to India and other parts of Asia, become colonised with foodborne bacteria.
The situation had become so serious that surgical patients and even those undergoing procedures such as biopsy should routinely be asked about their travel history, infectious disease specialists said yesterday.
Peter Collignon, head of infectious diseases at Canberra Hospital, said that in some Asian countries, poultry and pork were grown with high level antibiotics such as fluoroquinolones to promote growth and reduce disease.
Such practices meant bacteria mutated in order to evade the drugs, which were then rendered useless for treatment of humans.
Professor Collignon said most people casually infected with such resistant bacteria, usually resident in the gut, would not become ill and would clear them from their body within a month or two. But if surgery spread gut bacteria to other parts of the body, the result could be devastating.
Bloodstream infections after prostate biopsy were almost invariably associated with overseas travel, he said. They occurred because the procedure is conducted with instruments inserted into the prostate via the rectum.
Imported food - including vegetables grown with chicken fertiliser - were also a potential source of resistant infections, and there was no system to stop such foods entering Australia, he said.
Tom Gottlieb, president of the Australasian Society for Infectious Diseases, said doctors throughout Australia had noticed a growing link between travel and infection with organisms that did not respond to usual drug regimes, but it was hard to measure the extent of the change because surveillance systems were inadequate.
The true rate of drug-resistant infections was probably much higher than it appeared, Associate Professor Gottlieb said, because many strains could be identified through only costly genetic testing.
The trend risked undermining relatively successful efforts to minimise the development of antibiotic resistance within Australia, said Associate Professor Gottlieb, an infectious disease specialist at Concord Hospital.
Both specialists called on the federal government to increase monitoring. Associate Professor Gottlieb said the approximately $200,000 a year support of the Australian Group on Antimicrobial Resistance was ''a pittance compared to the amount of money available to lobbyists'' for the pharmaceutical industry - which had resulted in harmful antibiotic use in many countries.