Government health officials fear these conservative estimates could worsen as overuse and misuse of antibiotics cause more bacteria to develop resistance to the drugs. Without a major effort to preserve the current supply of antibiotics and to develop new ones, they say future generations will be ill-equipped to fight off the deadly superbugs.
“If we’re not careful, the medicine chest will be empty when we go there to look for a lifesaving antibiotic for someone with a deadly infection,” said Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC. “But if we act now, we can preserve these medications while we continue to work on development of new medications.”
The new report, “Antibiotic Threats in the United States, 2013,” is the first comprehensive analysis of the nation’s 18 most serious drug-resistant bacterial threats. The CDC, for the first time, has categorized the bacteria and the threat they pose as “urgent,” “serious” and “concerning.”
Among the three “urgent” threats is carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae, or CRE. Known as the “nightmare bacteria” because of its high mortality rate, CRE is resistant to nearly all antibiotics and spreads its drug resistance to other bacteria that otherwise would be vulnerable to vaccines. Patients at long-term or complex medical care facilities and nursing homes are at the greatest risk for CRE infection, which is spread mainly by dirty hands. CRE infects about 9,300 people a year and kills an estimated 610, the CDC estimates.
Another “urgent” bacterial threat is Clostridium difficile, which attacks patients mainly in health care settings. Although not yet significantly resistant to the drugs that treat it, C-diff is a diarrheal infection usually associated with antibiotic use. It infects about 250,000 people and kills at least 14,000 annually.
Drug-resistant gonorrhea is the third “urgent” bacterial threat. The sexually transmitted disease infects nearly 250,000 people each year but kills fewer than five, according to CDC estimates.
The 12 bacterial threats rated as “serious” include the superbug Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, which infects 80,000 people a year and kills 11,000.
The CDC estimates that antibiotic resistance costs the U.S. up to $20 billion a year in excess health care costs.