Drug-resistant bacteria a growing health problem
Posted By Lori Wiviott Tishler, M.D. On September 17, 2013
Antibiotic-resistant bacteria sicken more than two million Americans each year and account for at least 23,000 deaths. The main cause? Overuse of antibiotics.
A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Antibiotic Resistance Threats in the United States, 2013, details the health and financial costs of antibiotic resistance in the United States. In terms of health, antibiotic resistance should be in the CDC’s top 15 causes of death. It also adds as much as $20 billion in direct health-care costs. And the problem could get worse before it gets better.
“Antibiotic resistance is rising for many different pathogens that are threats to health,” said CDC Director Tom Frieden, M.D., in a prepared statement. “If we don’t act now, our medicine cabinet will be empty and we won’t have the antibiotics we need to save lives.”
Those are some very strong words from the director of the CDC. Like many doctors and citizens around the country, I am keenly aware of the risks of antibiotics. Still, Dr. Frieden’s words grabbed my attention.
What is antibiotic resistance? Here is a simple example. If you get a strep throat and take penicillin for it, the penicillin will kill off most of the streptococcal (strep) bacteria. But a few strep bacteria might survive. These survivors are, for many different reasons, resistant to the medicine. The next time around, your strep throat might not respond to penicillin.
You can acquire drug-resistant bacteria in many different ways. They can come from overusing antibiotics, or taking them when they aren’t necessary, as for a viral infection. You can develop resistance to antibiotics by eating meat treated with antibiotics. It’s also possible to get an antibiotic-resistant infection from other people—even, unfortunately, from health care professionals.
Why is antibiotic resistance a problem? The major issue is that commonly used antibiotics will become less able to treat common infections. That means doctors must turn to more powerful and sometimes less friendly antibiotics, or may not have anything in their arsenal.
In its report, the CDC identified three types of bacteria as urgent hazards:
Many other bacteria were listed as “serious” or “concerning” threats. They included some very common bacteria that cause pneumonia and strep throat. Fungi that cause some common yeast infections also made the “serious” list.
The CDC took the opportunity to unveil a four-pronged approach to monitor and address the problem. It aims to:
Everyone can help decrease the impact of antibiotic resistance and slow its growth—or even turn it around altogether. Preventing infection in the first place is important. Here are some steps:
I hope this important report is the beginning of a serious campaign against antibiotic resistance. If these ideas work, then we may see decreased resistance and infections. If they don’t, then we’re heading down a worrisome path in our ability to confront serious, life-threatening infections.
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