Drug-resistant bacteria infect millions and kill thousands in the U.S. each year, posing a major threat to the future of health care and treatment options, health officials say.
“When resistance of so-called ‘bad bacteria’ or disease-causing bacteria develops, these bacteria can gain the upper hand, making them even harder to eliminate and therefore, promoting their spread, causing even more disease,” Dr. Robin Patel, director of the Mayo Clinic’s Infectious Diseases Research Laboratory, said Thursday at a panel discussion at the Russell Senate Office Building.
More than 2 million people are infected by drug-resistant bacteria and at least 23,000 die from these infections nationwide each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The overuse and misuse of antibiotics have contributed to the evolution of drug-resistant bacteria and “superbugs,” bacterial strains resistant to several types of antibiotics.
“We’ve taken antibiotics for granted,” Dr. Patel said. “I can no longer count on available antibiotics to work like they did in the recent past, and it’s getting worse and worse year by year.”
Dr. Patel described the issue of antimicrobial resistance as complicated since antibiotics are used for people, animals and crops.
For almost a century, antibiotics have helped control and destroy many of the harmful bacteria that cause illnesses. But these drugs have lost their protective effects against some types of bacteria in recent decades. Certain bacteria are immune to today’s medicines.
Drug-resistant forms of tuberculosis, staph infections and gonorrhea are just some of the current health threats, the National Institute of Health says.
While some of the most dangerous superbugs had been confined to hospitals and other health care settings, some strains are out in the community, making anyone vulnerable to infection.
“It’s a problem that’s not going away,” Michael Craig, senior adviser for the CDC’s Antibiotic Resistance Coordination and Strategy Unit, said at the panel discussion. “We just want to underline the fact that this is a problem that does have the potential to impact every person on the planet.”
Because of modern travel of people, animals and goods, antimicrobial resistance can spread across borders and continents.
“We need to really recognize this is a growing threat, not just in our country, but really globally that we ultimately have to address,” Mr. Craig said.
A strategy to combat antimicrobial resistance is stewardship, an approach of using antibiotics only when needed, Dr. Patel said.
And a crucial tool for stewardship programs is diagnostic testing, said Susan Van Meter, executive director for AdvaMedDx, a medical device company. She said diagnostic tools can help identify pathogens, provide assurance to clinicians that antibiotics are needed and determine which antibiotics to use.
Ms. Van Meter said patient education on when to use antibiotics is also important, pointing to a study that showed that one-third of patients with the flu received a prescription for antibiotics.
Antibiotics can help fight against bacterial infections like ear infections and strep throat but don’t work against viruses such as those that cause colds or the flu.
Kalvin Yu, medical director of Medical Informatics, noted that antibiotic resistance is not the same across states and said providing heat maps for drug-resistant pathogens to hospitals could give staff a better idea about geographic resistance.
Aside from trying to prevent infections in the first place, Dr. Patel also noted the importance of developing non-antibiotic treatments. She pointed to fecal microbiota transplants, which fight infection by adding good bacteria to the gut, to treat a diarrheal illness called Clostridium difficile, a leading antibiotic resistance threat, as an example.
Individuals can help prevent drug-resistant infections by taking antibiotics as prescribed, using good hygiene practices and safe sex practices, getting vaccinated and preparing food safely.