This week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a 114-page report that finally quantifies how many Americans are sickened or killed by antibiotic-resistant infections such as MRSA and CRE (a drug-resistant bacterium related to E. coli). Tragically, while the agency intentionally reported the most conservative number, it found that at least two million people fall ill from superbugs every year, and 23,000 of them die.
It’s not fully clear what factors are most responsible for superbugs, although we do know they develop due to overuse of antibiotics. Whether the main problem is over-prescription by negligent medical professionals, overuse of the drugs by industrial ranches, or other factors are the main problem, however, is not yet known.
According to scientists, antibiotic-resistant bacteria develop like this: When antibiotics are used, they typically kill only the vast majority of the germs. Some small portion of the germs is naturally immune to one or more antibiotics. In most cases, the resistant bacteria are destroyed by the body or die out on their own. However, sometimes those resistant germs grow, making the person sick again. If that sick person comes into contact with vulnerable people, the drug-resistant germ is passed on.
This problem would still be relatively rare if it weren’t for the consistent, massive overuse of antibiotics both by negligent medical professionals and in the animals we eat. According to the CDC’s report, about half of all prescriptions for antibiotics for humans are unnecessary or improper, and “much of antibiotic use in animals is unnecessary and inappropriate and makes everyone less safe.”
For example, antibiotics are often prescribed for viral infections like the flu, but antibiotics have no effect on viruses. In most cases, healthy people will get well without antibiotics and should only use them on rare occasions.
The report counted illnesses and deaths caused by the 17 types of bacteria and one fungus that cause the vast majority of drug-resistant infections. Deaths were only counted as caused by drug-resistant superbugs when they were the direct result of the germs.
The good news is that progress has been made in reducing the number of hospital-acquired, drug-resistant MRSA, which dropped by half between 2005 and 2011. However, MRSA infections have not gone down in other health care settings.
Source: The New York Times, “Antibiotic-Resistant Infections Lead to 23,000 Deaths a Year, C.D.C. Finds,” Sabrina Tavernise, Sept. 16, 2013