For antibiotic-resistant bacteria, this is a time of ease. Strains of these nasty bugs are rapidly catching on in the United States and much of the rest of the world, and for the most part, antibiotics that killed these critters in the old days are largely ineffective.
Right now, one large family of bacteria with a very long name (Carbapenem-Resistant Enterobacteriaceae, or CRE) is running rampant, having become resistant to the antibiotic Carbapenem. There are 70 species of bacteria in this large family, including Klebsiella pneumoniae and Escherichia coli, according to a press release from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
During the first half of 2012, nearly 200 hospitals and long-term acute care facilities treated at least one patient infected with CRE, the CDC reports. CREs are particularly dangerous microbes, and the CDC has issued a call to action to the entire health care community in the U.S. to “work urgently-individually, regionally, and nationally to protect patients.”
“CRE are nightmare bacteria. Our strongest antibiotics don’t work and patients are left with potentially untreatable infections,” said Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H. and Director of the CDC. “Doctors, hospital leaders, and public health, must work tCogether now to implement CDC’s “detect and protect” strategy and stop these infections from spreading.”
According to the CDC if CRE enters the bloodstream, it kills up to half of the patients who contract it.
No doubt about it, this is one nasty bug. One of its minions, Klebsiella pneumoniae, wrought havoc last summer at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center, in Washington, D.C. Seven people died as a result, including a 16-year-old boy, according to USA Today.
Since the first known case appeared at a hospital in North Carolina, CREs have spread to 41 states. Research conducted by the newspaper shows that thousands of cases have cropped up throughout the country; showing up as everything from pneumonia to intestinal and urinary tract infections.
Obviously these bugs have found some way to become resistant to antibiotics, but how do they do it?
Antibiotics kill billions of harmful microbes but there’s always a few stragglers who manage to get past this because they hold a life-saving genetic change that allows them to carry on their heritage. Over time, these microbes become resistant and if the same antibiotic is used again it’s much less effective. Repeat this cycle a few times and CREs as well as many other species of bacteria can gain a deadly advantage, according to this article.
We as humans can only spread our genes through our children, but bacteria have managed to beat this scenario. Those that have developed genes that are resistant to antibiotics can then share the genes with descendants. In fact, these antibiotic-resistant genes can also jump from one species to another throughout the bacterial life cycle, according to the University of Washington at St. Louis newsroom.
Bacterial and parasitic diseases are the second leading causes of death, according to a report issued by the London School of Economics And Political Science (LSE) in this article which appeared in Time Health And Family. In Europe, at least 175,000 deaths each year have been attributed to infections that were acquired in hospitals.
Compounding this problem is the fact that pharmaceutical companies in the U.S. and Europe haven’t been developing new types of antibiotics, according to the article.
One fact that the article made very clear is that there is a dire need for new antibiotics, but very little money is being spent on research and development for new antibiotics.
There’s little profit for pharmaceutical companies because people take antibiotics over a short time period. The drugs help them get well quickly and doctors usually curtail the number of prescriptions they write in order to keep patients from developing a resistance to the medications. Inevitably, bacteria develop resistance to the drug, once again rendering it obsolete, the article reports.
Drugs for chronic illnesses are much more profitable. Lipitor is a medication used for lowering cholesterol. It’s been a $13 billion dollar per year cash cow for Pfizer Inc. However, the patent for the drug is going to run out within a few years.
The report issued by LSE suggests that pharmaceutical companies should be provided with incentives so that they will invest more in researching antibiotics. One way to do that would be for governments to offer extensions on patents for new antibiotics.
It’s very sad that people may die because pharmaceutical companies don’t invest in developing new antibiotics because they aren’t profitable enough.
This is a frightening scenario. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are gaining ground rapidly and if the powers that be don’t find ways to control these deadly microbes it’s very likely the death toll is going to continue escalating.
In the evolutionary arms race, the bacteria have brought out the heavy artillery. Now it’s time to push the pharmaceutical companies into returning the fire.
If you want to avoid infection, the CDC has provided helpful suggestions. Here’s a few tips:
- Talk with your doctor about antibiotic resistant bacteria.
- Ask if an antibiotic is necessary for your illness.
- Ask about what you can do to feel better sooner.
- Do not take an antibiotic for a viral illness like a cold or the flu.
- Don’t take antibiotics that have been prescribed for someone else. The antibiotic might not be the correct one for your illness, and taking the wrong medication may delay correct treatment and may give bacteria the chance to multiply.
Following these suggestions is the first step in making sure an epidemic doesn’t happen. Now the pharmaceutical companies need to take the second step to prevent an all-out war in the form of an epidemic.