CDC Says Antibiotic Resistance at Critical Levels
Like the last kid in a storm to realize the floodwaters are rising, the CDC has just officially announced that the overuse of prescription antibiotics may lead to disastrous consequences. The agency has released a 114-page report in which it notes that a minimum of 23,000 people die directly from antibiotic-resistant infections each year, and another 100,000 die from related complications.1 At least two million people a year contract such resistant infections.
The report warned of "potentially catastrophic consequences" if the US doesn't "take immediate action." Soon, it says, if we continue on the course we're on, we will see rising numbers of diseases that can't be treated with existing medications. Experts say this means that even minor infections could one day result in death sentences, as in pre-antibiotic times.
"If we're not careful, the medicine chest will be empty when we go there to look for a life-saving antibiotic," says CDC Director Thomas R. Frieden.
A few of the infections on the CDC danger list already resist all known antibiotics, while others resist only certain types of antibiotics, at least at this stage. The report names 17 antibiotic-resistant infections and ranks their level of threat as "urgent," "serious," or merely "concerning."2 The infections in the Urgent category have stopped responding to most drugs; serious infections are already resistant to at least one drug; and "concerning" infections are just starting to show signs of antibiotic resistance.
When the CDC says that the US needs to take "immediate action," what does it mean? Essentially, the report says that we need to "change the way antibiotics are used." Doctors need to cut back on prescribing antibiotics and patients need to be more circumspect in taking them. We've written many times before about how overuse of antibiotics leads to widespread antibiotic resistance. According to the CDC, up to half of all antibiotic prescriptions filled in the US are completely unnecessary. In fact, a chart appearing in USA Today shows that in certain regions of the US, as many as 1237 antibiotic prescriptions were filled per 1000 people in the year 2010! 3 Even in the "best" regions, where the lowest incidence of prescribing occurred, we're talking about a minimum of 529 antibiotic prescriptions per thousand people that year.
"It's very complicated, explains Dr. Vicky Fraser, who heads the Washington School of Medicine in St. Louis. "There is a misperception that antibiotics help everything, even viral infections." In other words, she blames patients who pressure doctors to "do something" to make them feel better when they have colds and viruses. Since viral infections don't respond to antibiotics, that's a futile solution. Fraser says people worry about missing work and school and that makes them panic when they get sick, leading them to beg their doctors for penicillin or another drug. Conceding to consumer demand, doctors reach into the toolbox and prescribe antibiotics. I'm sorry, but doesn't anyone else have a problem with this scenario--doctors knowingly giving patients something that won't help them and that has the potential for creating drug resistant pathogens that can ultimately kill hundreds of thousands if not millions of people? Who's the doctor here? Where's the ethical responsibility?
In any case, that problem may soon be solved as Duke University just released a report indicating that researchers have developed a blood test that can distinguish the difference between viral and bacterial infections with more than 90-percent accuracy.4 On the other hand, some consumers may yet demand antibiotics even knowing they have a viral disease, and some doctors may still oblige…unless regulations prohibit them from doing so.
But, and this is a surprise to most people, the truth is that most of the antibiotics in circulation in the US--up to 80 percent in fact--get fed to animals, not directly to humans. Antibiotics in the food supply pose an even greater problem than antibiotic over-prescription. Farmers add antibiotics to animal feed to prevent and treat disease because when animals are packed close together as in large-scale industrial farming, diseases breed and spread lightning fast, and the farmers want to prevent problems before they develop. They also use the antibiotics to spur rapid growth, along with added hormones. This literally turns industrial animal farms into breeding grounds for drug resistant pathogens…on a Biblical scale. Also, traces of these drugs leech into the meat and water supply, spreading the problem to virtually every person living in the country .
Although the agency noted that this issue needs to be addressed, it didn't offer specific solutions. "Much of antibiotic use in animals is unnecessary and inappropriate and makes everyone less safe," the report says. Getting industrial farmers to cut back probably won't happen unless the report generates regulations calling for that measure. Already, the FDA officially has recommended that farmers stop using antibiotics to promote animal growth, but those who don't comply suffer no repercussions. Take a guess how many comply.
By the way, it isn't only through meat and dairy that your food delivers a helping of antibiotics. Vegetables and fruits often are sprayed with antibiotics to keep them from harboring disease. In fact--and here's a horrifying reality--USDA loopholes allow even certain organic produce to be sprayed with antibiotics. Right now, only organic apples and pears get the dousing. If you want to be sure you are getting truly organic fruit, you'd better find a local grower you trust and do your research.
In any event, it's good news that the CDC has made noise about this issue. You can help move the report into some sort of action by writing to your legislators and expressing your concern.
- 1. Dennis, Brady and Vastag, Brian. "Drug resistant bacteria pose potential catastrophe, CDC warns." 16 September 2013. Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/drug-resistant-bacteria-pose-potential-catastrophe-cdc-warns/2013/09/16/4cd2d482-1ed6-11e3-b7d1-7153ad47b549_story.html
- 2. Tavernise, Sabrina. "Antibiotic-Resistant Infections Lead to 23,000 Deaths a Year, C.D.C. Finds."16 September 2013. New York Times. 19 September 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/17/health/cdc-report-finds-23000-deaths-a-year-from-antibiotic-resistant-infections.html
- 3. Kim Painter. "Drug-resistant bacteria." USA TODAY September 16, 2013. (Accessed 20 Sept 2013.) http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/09/16/cdc-germ-list/2819577
- 4. Marker, Jonathan. "Scientists create blood test that distinguishes between viral and bacterial infections." 19 September 2013. Science Recorder. 20 September 2013. http://www.sciencerecorder.com/news/scientists-create-blood-test-that-distinguishes-between-viral-and-bacterial-infections