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Sketchy stem-cell treatments in Mexico led to drug-resistant infections

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Three people who Traveled to Mexico for stem-cell injections that are not approved in the U.S. contracted difficult-to-treat, drug-resistant infections, a Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned Thursday (May 9).

The infections were caused by Mycobacterium abscessus, a bacterium that's distantly related to the ones behind tuberculosis and leprosy. The microbe commonly lurks in soil, water and dust, and it's known to sometimes contaminate medications and medical devices and thus cause infections in health care settings. 

Symptoms can include boils and pus-filled bubbles, in the case of skin infections, as well as fever, chills and muscle aches, when soft-tissue infections occur. Sometimes, the bacteria can invade the bloodstream. Treating the infection involves removing infected tissues and draining pus from the body, as well as giving antibiotics for a prolonged period.

For a given patient, doctors may have to test different drugs against samples of bacteria from their body, in order to find the most lethal combination against the drug-resistant bug.   

All three patients who got stem-cell injections in Mexico underwent the procedures in 2022, and as of March 2024, they were still being treated for M. abscessus infection in U.S. hospitals, according to the MMWR.

Related: Dangerous 'superbugs' are a growing threat, and antibiotics can't stop their rise. What can? 

"Providers and public health agencies need to be aware of the risk for M. abscessus infections from stem cell treatments for indications not approved by the Food and Drug Administration and maintain vigilance for similar cases," the report's authors wrote. "They also are advised to provide guidance for persons considering medical tourism." 

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