For the first time, the government has estimated the number of Americans infected and killed each year by drug-resistant bacteria. The new report, released this week by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) paints a frightening picture: Each year in the U.S., about two million people are infected and 23,000 killed by bacteria that are no longer susceptible to many commonly used medications.
In particular, the CDC has classified as urgent threats carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE), drug-resistant gonorrhea and Clostridium difficile. The CDC also listed 12 different bacteria as “serious” threats, including vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus (VRE), methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and drug-resistant tuberculosis.
Clostridium difficile, which causes a serious diarrheal disease that may result in death, is still responsive to most medications used to treat it but commonly occurs following antibiotic regimens that wipe out healthy gastrointestinal bacteria. The CDC reported that there are an additional 250,000 Americans hospitalized annually for infection with C. difficile, and it kills an additional 14,000 people a year on top of the 23,000 people killed by other drug-resistant infections.
Not only do these bugs threaten American lives, but they also contribute to the cost of the overburdened health-care system. Antibiotic resistance adds an estimated $20 billion in health-care costs and may result in the loss of nearly $35 billion a year due to lost productivity.
The CDC cited overuse and misuse of antibiotics as the single largest factor contributing to the development of drug-resistant organisms. The organization reported that “up to 50 percent of all the antibiotics prescribed for people are not needed or are not prescribed appropriately.” Use of antibiotics in livestock is also likely contributing to the problem, the CDC said.
The more an antibiotic is used, the more opportunities there are for bacteria with special defense mechanisms against that antibiotic to survive and proliferate. These bugs can even transmit antibiotic-resistant genetic information to other bacteria, allowing the bugs to spread quickly and cause rampant, hard-to-treat disease.
These bacteria pose a huge threat to health worldwide and may eventually erase many medical advances, as many modern treatments depend on the availability of effective antibiotics. Procedures such as organ transplants and joint replacements, and treatments for cancer and autoimmune diseases, often depend on effective antibiotics to protect people from bacteria that may invade a weakened host. “If the ability to effectively treat those infections is lost, the ability to safely offer people many of the life-saving and life-improving modern medical advances will be lost with it,” the CDC report stated.