CDC expert: 'Antibiotic resistance is worse than we previously thought'

Adriana Belmonte
Associate Editor

A superbug, otherwise known as an antibiotic-resistant infection, can be potentially lethal.

And according to a new CDC report, there are more than 2.8 million superbugs in the U.S. each year, with more than 35,000 people dying from them. 

“The problem of antibiotic resistance is worse than we previously thought,” Dr. Michael Craig, co-author of the report and senior advisor for antibiotic resistance at the CDC, told Yahoo Finance.

“And that practically means that millions of people in the U.S. who are affected by the tens of thousands die in the U.S. every year,” he added. “That really amounts to someone in the U.S. on average getting an antibiotic-resistant infection every 11 seconds, and someone dying in the U.S. on average of an antibiotic-resistance infection every 15 minutes.”

Those germs spreads between people, whether or not they display symptoms of an infection. There are several ways that the germ can spread, which includes close contact, in the air, contaminated water, contact with contaminated surfaces, animals, and sexual contact. 

This is how germs become antibiotic-resistant. (Graphic: CDC)

“This problem is not going away,” Craig said. “It’s potentially a problem that will be with us forever. I would also note, though, that it’s not a hopeless situation, because we highlighted in the report that prevention is possible. We’ve seen some progress in certain parts, especially in the prevention of resistant infections and hospitals. We need to do more actions like that and really scale up what works to address this problem.”

‘Cost billions of dollars already’

There are two main ways to combat antibiotic resistance, Craig said, and the first is to ensure that antibiotics are used appropriately. 

“This means following your doctor’s advice on when to start and when to stop them,” he said. “It’s not demanding an antibiotic, especially when you don’t need one.” 

The other method is what he refers to as standard prevention practices. 

“These are things like practicing good hygiene, including handwashing,” Craig said. “It’s getting vaccinated. It’s following safe sex practices, if you’re sexually active. It’s preparing and following safe food handling, like cooking your meat thoroughly to prevent the spread of germs and resistors.” 

Good hygiene can help stop the spread of superbugs. (Photo: AP Photo/John Amis)

Superbugs like these don’t just have health consequences — there are also economic effects, depending on the type of pathogen.

“It really does vary depending upon what type of resistance it is,” Craig said. “But this is something ultimately that’s cost billions of dollars already. And if the problem gets worse, it can cost millions more.”

For example, the carbapenem-resistant Acinetobacter, which can cause pneumonia and urinary tract infections, cost an estimated $281 million in 2017 in health care costs. Its threat level is considered “urgent” by CDC standards. C. difficile, commonly known as C. diff, cost a whopping $1 billion that same year. And, the MRSA bacteria cost $1.7 billion across 323,700 different cases that year. 

“It’s not just the cost,” Craig said. “It really does undermine a lot of other things. An example of that is, effective antibiotics are really what we rely upon when we’re treating patients. To treat a cancer patient with chemotherapy, we need to make sure that we can treat an infection that happens while that person is immunocompromised. If we have antibiotic-resistant infections … then we run into the various terrible situations of someone essentially surviving therapy but dying of a resistant infection.” 

‘A global problem’

The CDC report states that antibiotic resistance “disproportionately impacts the most vulnerable,” meaning the young, the elderly, and those who are sick. These are the groups that often receive medical care, which means exposing them to the superbugs that often live in health care facilities. 

“Antibiotic resistance really is something that has the potential to affect everyone,” Craig said. “Something that has the potential to really affect every person on the planet. And it impacts a lot of different aspects of life — food, water, sexual health — and moreover, it’s something that we all need to understand.”

A woman walks with a face mask during a snow storm in Times Square in the Manhattan borough of New York, January 23, 2016. (Photo: REUTERS/Carlo Allegri)

The important thing to understand, Craig stressed, is that while antibiotics are life-saving, it also comes with negative consequences, which is why it should not be taken for granted. 

“It’s important for us to realize that antibiotic resistance is one health problem,” he said. “And that means that it’s ultimately a problem that impacts humans, impacts animals, and impacts the environment and the use of antibiotics in those different places. The spread of antibiotic-resistant germs in those places all interact with each other.” 

Craig noted that “this is also a global problem” while the report only “highlights the problem in the United States. But this is really a problem that affects every country on the planet. And every country has to really step up to address it within their own borders and then collectively work to address it around the world.” 

Adriana is an associate editor for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @adrianambells.

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