In the United States, antibiotic-resistant germs are making about 3 million people sick and killing more than 35,000 every year, according to a new report released on Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
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The report suggests that the US and the world are failing to combat the growing public health threat of antibiotic resistance, with the number of dangerous superbugs only having increased in the past half-decade.
The new estimates show that in the US, on average, one person is infected with an antibiotic-resistant bug every 11 seconds and that this results in a death every 15 minutes.
One of the gravest public health challenges in modern medicine
Multi-drug resistant organisms pose one of the gravest public health challenges in modern medicine and represent a threat that researchers, clinicians, and public health officials have been warning about for decades. Now, this latest CDC report reveals the most troubling trends, with increasing numbers of pathogens developing new resistance mechanisms and infections spreading further outside of the hospital setting.
In 2013, the CDC released a report estimating how often the superbugs sicken and kill people in the US every year and ranked the pathogens that were becoming problematic by threat level, from concerning to urgent. The estimates back then showed that more than 2 million people were contracting the infections every year and that at least 23,000 subsequently died.
Now, in 2019, the situation has only worsened, with 3 million people getting infected every year and 35,900 dying as a result.
“This report should raise the alarm for everyone concerned about protecting and improving health against infectious diseases. While its focus is on the United States, the findings will echo around the world,” says Tim Jinks, head of the UK-based research charity Wellcome Trust’s Drug-Resistant Infections Program.
The CDC report follows a similarly concerning report released by Canadian researchers this week, which showed that 26% of infections in Canada are resistant to front-line antibiotics and that this figure could increase to 40% by the year 2050.
Two new bugs have been added to the CDC’s list of threats
Since 2013, the CDC has added two new bugs to its list of threatening infections: one is a fungus called Candida auris, and the other is a bacteria called Carbapenem-resistant Acinetobacter, which is usually harmless to healthy people, but a threat to hospital patients. These infections now join Clostridioides difficile (C. difficile), Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE), and Neisseria gonorrhoeae on the shortlist of urgent infections.
Of these dangerous infections, C. difficile is thought to cause the most harm, with the bacteria infecting an estimated 223,900 hospitalized patients and killing 12,800 every year. Then there is CRE, which has now been nicknamed the “nightmare bacteria” because it tends to resist almost every currently available antibiotic. Neisseria gonorrhoeae is also listed as one of the bacteria that is expected to develop resistance to all front-line drugs currently available soon.
In addition to the germs that have been ranked by threat level, the CDC has now also added a “Watch List” of potentially threatening bugs. These include Aspergillus fumigatus, which has become resistant to the azole class of antifungals, the sexually transmitted Mycoplasma genitalium, and the resistant Bordetella pertussis that causes whooping cough.
The report reiterates that this is not a stagnant problem—that we have to be ever vigilant because it does change.”
Kathy Talkington, project director of the Antibiotic Resistance Project at Pew Charitable Trusts
Some progress has been made
The report highlights that some progress has been made in combating risk factors for antibiotic resistance. Hospitals have improved their approaches to tracking and slowing the spread of resistant bugs, and deaths from the infections have decreased by around 30% since 2013.
In 2017, the Food and Drug Administration also placed restrictions on the use of antibiotics for livestock, mandating that any administration of the drugs is first authorized by a vet. As a result, the sale of antibiotics for livestock seems to have declined, although the latest updates will not be available until the end of the year.
Many hospitals have implemented programs to reduce the over-prescription of antibiotics to children and outpatients, and the CDC reports that prescription rates seem to have fallen recently in both groups.
However, these are only minor victories; antibiotic overuse still continues in many regions of the world, and no new antibiotics have been introduced in more than 30 years, with many pharmaceutical companies abandoning antibiotic research due to a lack of profitability.
Furthermore, although governments and organizations have generated new funding and been trying to convince companies to conduct antibiotic research, it is not yet clear whether this will be enough to combat the problem as it stands.
“We’ve succeeded in the past. In the early 1980s, we had the heyday of antibiotic development, and we were able to stay ahead of this issue,” says Talkington. “We still have the capacity and the ability to do it today, but we need the political will and adequate resources—because currently, we are losing the battle.”
Advances are urgently needed
There is no reason to think that in the immediate future, antibiotics will fail to prevent any type of infection. However, without any advances made in the years to come, everything from giving birth to receiving a transplant will no longer be safe, and many people will die.
CDC Director Robert Redfield says this latest report highlights that antibiotic resistance is a “One Health issue that can spread through people, animals, and the environment…and affects nearly every aspect of life.”
Our nation must stop referring to a coming post-antibiotic era—it’s already here. You and I are living in a time when some miracle drugs no longer perform miracles, and families are being ripped apart by a microscopic enemy.”
Robert Redfield, Director of the CDC