Over just nine months in 2017, there were 221 cases of infections from bacteria that are resistant to most or all antibiotics across the US, the CDC announced today.
The proliferation of ‘nightmare bacteria’ has been called one of the most pressing global public health issues currently facing the human race.
One in 10 Americans that had come into contact with an infected person carried at least one antibiotic-resistant germ and one in four bacteria had genetic traits that make them able to spread their resistance to other germs.
These kinds of bacteria already kill thousands of Americans each year, and the CDC’s new findings have led it to develop a strategy for ‘early, aggressive action’ that it says can keep these superbugs from spreading.
The CDC found 221 unusual, antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the US in its first large national survey. One quarter of the germs carried DNA that can make them ‘spread like wildfire’
As our treatments for bacterial infections evolve, so do the bacteria.
Now, the CDC has identified more than 220 cases involving bacteria that carry rare genes that make them immune to the effects of most or all existing antibiotic treatments across 27 states.
‘I was surprised, that was more than I was expecting,’ said CDC deputy director Dr Anne Schuchat.
‘Essentially, we found nightmare bacteria in your backyard,’ she added.
The report, issued today, is the first of its kind, drawing on information gathered by the CDC’s Antibiotic Resistance Lab Network, which was established in 2016 and consists of at least one lab in each state, seven regional labs and the National Tuberculosis Molecular Surveillance Center.
Each year, an estimated two million people in the US were infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and 23,000 of those die.
This represents only a small fraction of the American population, but these bacteria may lurk just a few degrees of separation from us all.
The CDC’s lab network tested samples from nearly 5,800 people, and one in every 10 of those came back positive for unusual DNA that made them resistant to treatment.
WHAT IS ANTIBIOTIC RESISTANCE?
Antibiotics have been doled out unnecessarily by GPs and hospital staff for decades, fueling once harmless bacteria to become superbugs.
The World Health Organization has previously warned if nothing is done the world was headed for a ‘post-antibiotic’ era.
It claimed common infections, such as chlamydia, will become killers without immediate answers to the growing crisis.
Bacteria can become drug resistant when people take incorrect doses of antibiotics, or they are given out unnecessarily.
Chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies claimed in 2016 that the threat of antibiotic resistance is as severe as terrorism.
Figures estimate that superbugs will kill ten million people each year by 2050, with patients succumbing to once harmless bugs.
Around 700,000 people already die yearly due to drug-resistant infections including tuberculosis (TB), HIV and malaria across the world.
Concerns have repeatedly been raised that medicine will be taken back to the ‘dark ages’ if antibiotics are rendered ineffective in the coming years.
In addition to existing drugs becoming less effective, there have only been one or two new antibiotics developed in the last 30 years.
In September, the World Health Organisation warned antibiotics are ‘running out’ as a report found a ‘serious lack’ of new drugs in the development pipeline.
Without antibiotics, caesarean sections, cancer treatments and hip replacements would also become incredibly ‘risky’, it was said at the time.
A full quarter of the sample bacteria carried a special genetic variation that makes them capable of passing their resistance to other germs.
These bits of DNA are what allow antibiotic resistant bacteria to ‘spread like wildfire,’ according to the CDC.
When antibiotic-resistant bacteria was found in one person – usually, but not always, in a nursing home or healthcare facility – the CDC then tested people with whom they had come into contact.
CDC scientists found that one in 10 had also developed resistance – with or without symptoms.
This means that the ‘unusual resistance may have spread and could have continued to spread,’ increasing the ‘capacity to turn regular germs into nightmare bacteria,’ said Dr Scuchat.
To combat the threat, the CDC’s new protocol calls for ‘rapid identification’ of such a bacteria, ‘infection control assessments, colonization screenings’ to see if the resistant form has spread to others, a ‘coordinated response between facilities,’ followed by a rather vague phase of ‘continued assessment and screening.’
About half of those that get an antibiotic-resistant infection simply do not recover, Dr Schuchat said, so containing the infection may mean isolating the infected person and having health care teams very carefully use basic safety precautions like wearing gloves and gowns.
According to the CDC’s assessment, the containment strategy has helped to reduce cases of two types of resistant infections since 2006.
The agency further estimates that, when executed quickly and aggressively, the response can reduce these infections by up to 76 percent over the course of three years.
‘This is not a new concept, but [we have] tremendously increased capacity in each state,’ with 500 new staff-members across the country, thanks to an allotment of funds toward the antibiotic-resistance labs given to the CDC in 2016, Dr Schuchat said.
Scientists have recently been sounding the alarm over antibiotic resistance more loudly, warning that with one in three antibiotics being prescribed unnecessarily, we are fueling the ability of bacteria to morph and become difficult or impossible to treat.
Now, the CDC is joining that call in a report on the prevalence of these bacteria and the effectiveness of its new, additional stra
tegy for preventing their spread.
Its report falls in line with a set of guidelines written by experts from 13 countries – including the US, India and France – also published today by the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy, which call for an internationally-standardized approach to antibiotic use to curtail the proliferation of resistant bugs.
‘This is the beginning of the surveillance,’ so it is unclear if there are more or fewer antibiotic-resistant bacteria than in past years, ‘but we hope that it is not the beginning of the inevitable march upward,’ said Dr Schuchat.