In December 2013, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) released its report, Antibiotic Resistance Threats in the US, which detailed the growing dangers of antibiotic resistance across the United States. According to the report, more than two million people become infected with some form of antibiotic resistant bacteria each year, and 23,000 die as a result. The CDC report exposes the dangers of antibiotic resistance and superbugs, and how this threatens not only our ability to treat infectious diseases, but our ability to use antibiotics in combination treatment in patients who have cancer, need organ transplants or undergo other forms of surgery.
The CDC explains on their website that these superbugs have developed through the process persistent exposure to antibiotics. The bacteria found in humans, animals and throughout the environment have developed resistance to antibiotics, which allows them to spread more quickly because they can not be contained through traditional drug treatment. This causes more severe types of infection which leads to more potent forms of antibiotics. Because the bacteria can share genetic information with other bacteria, i.e their genetic make up is very similar, other forms of bacteria become resistant to antibiotic treatment as well. Essentially, the bacteria adapt quickly and outsmart antibiotic mechanisms, making them more resilient, rendering more lethal infections that cannot be treated.
Tom Frieden, M.D., director of the CDC, explained that the rise in antibiotic resistance among various pathogens presents a very real threats to human health. Frieden expressed that immediate action was necessary before antibiotics become completely ineffective in saving lives. In the CDC’s report, the threats posed by the superbugs were categorized according to their impact: urgent, serious, and concerning.
Infections that were classified as urgent consisted of Methicillin-resistant Staph, Cabapenem-resistant Enterobacteriacae (E. Coli or those similar to it), drug-resistant gonorrhea, and Clostridium difficile (antibiotic resistant diarrhea). The California Medical Association Foundation (CMA) reports that alone, C. difficile causes around 14,000 deaths in the U.S each year. This alone is reason enough for the CDC to warn of the dangers of antibiotic resistance and superbugs.
Reports suggest that there are several causes of antibiotic resistance; chief among them are the overuse of antibiotics in medicine, as well as the excessive use of antibiotics in treating livestock and plant agriculture. Concerning the over prescription of antibiotics by physicians, the CMA argues that most Americans do not fully comprehend the fact that antibiotic use can be dangerous.
According to public opinion polls, many Americans have the impression that antibiotics can cure everything. This puts physicians under a lot of pressure, when patients go to them with hopes of being treated with antibiotics. The CMA argues that because physicians are short on time, they cannot go into the details of how antibiotics could do more harm than good. There are also cases when diagnosis is difficult because an infection could be viral or bacterial, which leads doctors to prescribe antibiotics as a general treatment.
Journalist Maryn McKenna, author of Superbug, writes in her blog that if we lose the ability to treat people with antibiotics, we lose the ability to treat a people for very practical things like traumatic accidents such as car crashes, or maintaining the safety of mothers after childbirth. For number sake, before antibiotic use, five out of every thousand mothers died in child-birth, three people out of every 10 who suffered pneumonia did not survive, and one out of nine skin infections led to death.
As for antibiotic use in treatment of livestock and agriculture, there are human implications there also. Use of antibiotics to treat diseases that exist among plants and animal livestock have shown the same results as in humans- they too have developed resistance to antibiotics. As plants and animals become antibiotic resistant, there are very few drugs available to treat these superbug infections. If superbugs begin to spread throughout any given livestock or agriculture population, as it already has with apple crops, farmers are faced with losing vast numbers of crops which will compromise the economy, food supplies chains and essentially threaten food security.
In response to the CDC’s report, the Obama administration proposed a plan to increase spending in a preventative measure to fight the spread of superbugs in hospitals. An estimated $30 million will be sought, to open laboratories that specialize in combating drug-resistant superbugs and helping local hospitals quickly diagnose and find proper methods of treatment. The labs would also help in tracking outbreaks throughout the country. The Obama administration and the CDC have advised every hospital to develop a program that will monitor and improve how antibiotics are prescribed.
With the CDC warning of the potential dangers regarding antibiotic resistance and superbugs, practical measures can be taken by citizens to better protect them against infection. The CDC encourages citizens to be up to date on vaccinations, wash hands regularly and thoroughly, especially after handling uncooked food, and cooking meat and poultry adequately to kill bacteria. Most importantly, it is necessary for people to educate themselves on proper treatment methods for infections, looking to more natural ways of healing to avoid the risk of obtaining an antibiotic-resistant infection. Also, personal research will help bring more awareness to how antibiotics work and the consequences of their use.
By Natalia Sanchez