Researchers identified more than 200 cases of “nightmare” bacteria with new or rare antibiotic-resistance genes in the U.S.
By Ernst Lamothe Jr.
Superbugs so powerful they are resistant to antibiotics have become a reality in the United States. Known as “nightmare bacteria,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently found 221 antibiotic resistance genes. The agency detected 11 percent of people carried those genes even though they carried no symptoms. Antibiotic-resistant germs kill more than 23,000 Americans each year and that figure could be going up.
“Superbugs are a major problem and a grave threat to public health,” said Emil Lesho, infectious diseases physician and the healthcare epidemiologist for Rochester Regional Health. “This is a crisis that people should be aware of and worry about.”
Here are five things Lesho wants people to understand about the issue.
1. The “nightmare bacteria” are real and the problem they cause is growing.
By 2050, healthcare research and various agencies predict antibiotic resistance genes could be the cause of 10 million deaths per year worldwide. Bacteria evolve, mutate and acquire genetic traits that make them impervious to antibiotics. These genetic resistance-causing traits can then easily spread to other bacteria, even to very different types and species of bacteria. And once it spreads, it can be very difficult to control. Imagine a world where 700,000 United States citizens die each year because of the “nightmare bacteria” situation; the equivalent of killing off everyone in a city like Denver or Seattle.
“It is one of the greatest health threats we are dealing with,” said Lesho. “This is something that is happening all over the world. We could be headed into a post-antibiotic world where common infections can kill.”
2. What is the cause of the resistance?
Experts say many of the ‘superbugs’ we see today were unheard of or very rare 10 to 15 years ago. But why? One reason lies in the medical and agricultural communities. Overuse and misuse of antibiotics are some of the ways people have developed an antibiotic resistance. While taking antibiotics can take care of infection and make the healing process go quicker, it has also led to doctors prescribing it for longer periods of time than needed. It has also been prescribed for conditions where antibiotics are not effective such as viral infections of the throat, ears and lungs.
“We have healthcare providers who are over-prescribing and having their patients take antibiotics for two weeks or more, when a few days will do,” said Lesho. “The susceptible bacteria are evolving through natural selection and increasing.”
Lesho believes the medical and agricultural communities should step up and be the first line of defense to stem the crisis of escalating antibiotic resistance. “The CDC and other agencies and organizations are educating the public and physicians about the importance of using antibiotics wisely,” he said. “Physicians must take the lead in being good stewards and intervening. Whether that is in hospitals or nursing homes, we need people to be healthcare champions and be responsible about the prescribing antibiotics.”
Opioids has become a nationwide crisis. Opioids are a class of drugs that include the illicit drug heroin as well as prescription pain relievers oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, fentanyl and others. The issue is that patients who are addicted to opioids often develop severe, life threatening infections that require weeks or months of antibiotic treatment. This puts continuous pressure on the bacteria to develop resistance. “People who have opioids addiction often suffer from severe infections and those type of infections are often long-term, and recurring” said Lesho.
4. Look at our food
One of the most common causes of infections in humans and animals are known as E. coli. In China, a super-E. coli has developed because of the widespread use of a certain type of antibiotic in agriculture to promote faster growth of animals. The genetic trait causing superbug or “nightmare bacteria” easily spreads from one species to another. These bacteria can also get into the environment through animal and human stool and may spread to produce that is irrigated with contaminated water. “When you are discussing our food and our water, those are two elements that we need to survive,” said Lesho. “These bacteria and their genetic traits have been found in our food, water and sewage. Antibiotics should only be taken when needed and for a short period of time and not used for growth promotion in agriculture.
5. Globally spreading
Population displacement is at record levels from wars and regional conflicts. As a result, many of these countries lost their stable public health institutions.
“Sanitation was disrupted. You had mosquito-borne illness in climates that really foster disease,” said Lesho. “You had drinking water that was scarce and other factors that cause spreading of antibiotic bacteria problems. There are so many reasons why this has grown to the forefront of the medical community.”
“A crucial part of healthcare are antibiotics,” said Lesho. “Look at many of the major healthcare developments in the 20th century. You couldn’t do most of those without antibiotics, including elective surgery, joint replacement, transplants or chemotherapy.”