At least two million Americans are sickened by drug-resistant bacteria each year, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). About 23,000 of those people end up dying. The CDC’s numbers are the first comprehensive look at the impact of the rise of diseases that can’t be treated with antibiotics, an issue that the federal agency characterizes as an “urgent” public health threat.
The CDC cited drug-resistant strains of gonorrhea, a “nightmare” superbug that’s been spreading throughout hospitals, and a bacteria that causes serious diarrhea as the three most urgent issues in this area. Along with those top three threats, federal researchers also classified an additional 12 infections that result from antibiotic-resistant bugs as “serious” and an additional three as “concerning.”
“For organism after organism, we’re seeing this steady increase in resistance rates,” the CDC’s director, Dr. Thomas Frieden, told Reuters in a telephone interview. “We don’t have new drugs about to come out of the pipeline. If and when we get new drugs, unless we do a better job of protecting them, we’ll lose those, also.”
Since it’s not as profitable for the pharmaceutical industry to attempt to develop new antibiotics, scientific innovation in this area has lagged. As of April, it’s been more than two decades since a single new antibiotic treatment has been developed. That’s giving rise to increasing strains of common diseases that are growing resistant to the only ways we know how to treat them. The U.S. government recently partnered with a pharmaceutical giant in the hopes of spurring the creation of new drugs to protect Americans against a potential epidemic.
“This is scary stuff, and we want people to know about it,” Dr. Steve Solomon, the director of the CDC’s Office of Antimicrobial Resistance, noted.
U.S. health officials aren’t the only ones sounding the alarm about this issue. At the beginning of this year, England’s chief medical officer warned that the globe is facing an impending “antibiotic apocalypse” when even the most common infections won’t be able to be treated with drugs anymore. “Antibiotics are losing their effectiveness at a rate that is both alarming and irreversible –- similar to global warming,” Professor Dame Sally Davies pointed out.
The CDC’s report cautions against the over-use of antibiotics, which can make them lose their effectiveness quickly. The researchers estimated that about half of the current antibiotics prescribed to people are unnecessary.
The meat industry also bears much of the responsibility in this area. In fact, the meat industry consumes more than four times the amount of antibiotics as sick humans do, largely to fend off the types of infections that easily spread among animals kept in very close quarters. That has a direct impact on the American population. Half of U.S. meat contains antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and scientists have confirmed that superbugs can be be transferred from animals to humans. The new federal report confirms that “much of antibiotic use in animals is unnecessary and inappropriate and makes everyone less safe.”
It’s difficult to track the direct impact of superbugs, and the CDC acknowledges that their new figures are likely underestimations. But some previous estimates have calculated that antibiotic-resistant infections may result in up to $20 billion in health costs each year, as well as another $35 billion in lost worker productivity.