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It’s probably a good thing that bacteria are basically invisible to the naked eye. Because once you can actually see everything, like a hypersensitive superhero, you might not be so motivated to eat or drink and your life may be overrun by obsessive and compulsive cleaning.  

But here’s the thing though, you will want to know if the water you are drinking is free and clear of anything that will harm you. And if it that harmful bacterium happens to be the – hold on to your knickers, this will be a mouthful – Stenotrophomonas maltophilia, you will want to know if it’s contaminated the water system by using water quality testing kits.

Stenotrophomonas maltophilia or, for those who like the short version, S. maltophilia is the only Stenotrophomonas species known to infect people, particularly hospitalised people. The disease-causing bacterium can be found in not just water, but also soil, contaminated medical solutions (e.g., saline rinse solutions, humidifier water, etc.), and contaminated medical devices like catheters and breathing tubes.

Infections of S. maltophilia have been linked to high morbidity and mortality with people who have compromised immune systems. So it is an opportunistic pathogen. People with existing conditions such as cystic fibrosis, HIV infection, malignancies and those who use mechanical ventilation and undergoing chemotherapy are at tremendous risk for getting Stenotrophomonas infection. 

Here’s even more troubling news about this dark and devious bacterium: S. maltophilia is multi-drug resistant. That means it has resistance mechanisms, particularly to several antibiotic classes such as aminoglycosides, beta-lactams, carbapenems, and fluoroquinolones. The bacterium develops further resistance against cephalosporins due to decreased outer membrane permeability. In short, S. maltophilia is one tough bacterium to defeat or treat.

So how is this virtually unpronounceable and completely harmful bacterium transmitted? In hospitals, transmission could occur when contaminated medical devices are implanted, when there is indirect contact from contaminated surfaces, and ingesting or bathing in contaminated water. When transmission happens, a person could present endocarditis, meningitis, pneumonia, bacterium, soft tissue infection, and urinary tract infection. 

While all this sounds severely grim and a downright downer, there is still treatment available. A combination therapy of trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole and ticarcillin/clavulanate may be delivered. But since there isn’t any vaccination against this nefarious bacterium, prevention is still the key. 

By having water quality tested with the appropriate kit and from the proper laboratory, people may steer clear of this potentially life-threatening, multi-drug resistant, and opportunistic pathogen.

+Duncan Hollis