Antibiotic overuse gives rise to drug-resistant superbugs, says Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
It’s a scenario straight from a zombie thriller: a powerful, drug-resistant disease that can’t be stopped by modern medicine. But this horror movie plot staple is on its way to becoming a reality.
The problem, said Michaela Halcomb, infection prevention specialist at St. Anthony Summit Medical Center, is that drug-resistant organisms are appearing more frequently now, due to the overuse of antibiotics.
“Antibiotics aren’t the cure-all for every illness,” she said. “After years of overuse, now we have germs out there that are so resistant, we’re having a hard time controlling some of these infections. There’s nothing that’s going to kill these bugs anymore.”
St. Anthony is promoting a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention campaign that aims to educate people about antibiotics: “Get Smart: Know When Antibiotics Work.”
Antibiotics cure bacterial infections, not viral infections; colds, flu, most sore throats, and bronchitis shouldn’t be fought with an antibiotic. Disease-causing bacteria trigger illnesses, but a virus causes illness by invading healthy cells and reproducing.
Alexander Fleming discovered the first antibiotic, penicillin, in 1928. Beginning with their first use in the 1940s, antibiotics transformed medical care and helped reduced illness and death from infectious diseases, according to the CDC.
Antibiotics were prescribed for anything that seemed infection-related. But this practice contributed to many bacteria now that are resistant to the antibiotics, Halcomb said. Because of overuse, and improper use, for many years, the bacteria have adapted to continue to multiply and spread.
“These organisms are always mutating to survive,” she said. “They are always a step ahead of us. We’re trying to catch up with getting the drugs out there to fight them.”
Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria change in a way that reduces or eliminates the effectiveness of drugs designed to cure or prevent infections. Every year, more than 2 million people in the United States get infections that are resistant to antibiotics and at least 23,000 people die as a result, according to a report issued by the CDC in September.
“Antibiotic resistance is rising for many different pathogens that are threats to health,” said CDC director Tom Frieden in a prepared statement. “If we don’t act now, our medicine cabinet will be empty and we won’t have the antibiotics we need to save lives.”
Studies have estimated that, in the United States, antibiotic resistance adds $20 billion in excess direct health care costs. The use of antibiotics is the single most important factor leading to antibiotic resistance, the CDC says. Up to 50 percent of antibiotics prescribed are not needed or are improperly prescribed.
“It’s kind of a little scary,” Halcomb said. “There’s a time and a place for antibiotics. We’re encouraging physicians not to be pressured into giving antibiotics at the drop of the hat.”
In his report, Frieden said many medical advances, such as joint replacements, organ transplants, cancer therapy and rheumatoid arthritis therapy, are dependent on the ability to fight infections with antibiotics.
St. Anthony and other Colorado hospitals in the Centura Health network are introducing an Antibiotic Stewardship Program, in which pharmacies help physicians order the correct antibiotics.
“People want a pill to make them better,” Halcomb said. “The public needs to understand the resistance we have in our country. An antibiotic is not always the appropriate medication.”
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