The gut of a healthy person contains a large population of bacteria. Not only are these bacteria normally harmless, they actually benefit us by carrying out fermentation of undigested foodstuffs in the large intestine. Several nutrients are made during the fermentation, including vitamin K and biotin. The bacterial population can be depleted by antibiotics. People wishing to recruit more gut bacteria can now take them in the form of a health food pill, but there is little evidence that this does anything useful. In 1994, there were worrying reports that some of the pills contained the potentially dangerous bacteria, Enterococcus faecium. This has been called a ‘lethal superbug’ by the press because if it gets into the bloodstream it may cause a serious infection. In addition, some of the bacteria are resistant to the antibiotic vancomycin, known as the ‘antibiotic of last resort’ because it is held in reserve by doctors to treat people who do not respond to conventional antibiotics. Medical researchers are worried that the artificial introduction of large populations of E. faecium may spread vancomycin resistance into the general population and increase the number of untreatable infections. The US Food and Drug Administration has been asked to investigate the sale of health food pills that contain these potentially dangerous bacteria.
Subjects: Medicine and Health.