(CN) – “Nightmare bacteria” with resistance to the strongest antibiotics are a growing threat in the U.S., according to a new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Health officials observed the trend as part of a yearlong effort in 2017 to establish labs around the country focused on identifying so-called superbugs, believing that identifying such bugs quickly improves the chances of containment.
Of the 5,770 samples that the CDC collected, about 1,400 had genes that made them difficult to treat, and 221 were endowed with unusual resistance genes. The cases were scattered across 27 states, and researchers found that 11 percent of those in contact with an infected patient were carrying the bug as well but had no symptoms.
Experts warn that excessive use of antibiotics people allows more opportunities for bacteria around them to evolve: antibiotics are routinely overprescribed and misused in the U.S. and around the world, often used to treat sore throats or viral respiratory infections.
Superbugs also tend to be common in hospitals and nursing homes, where opportunities for infection are high. Healthy people can carry the bugs and unknowingly pass them to the more vulnerable, such as those entering invasive surgery. People who undergo medical treatment abroad, where antibiotic-resistant bacteria are common, can also unwittingly bring the bugs home with them.
The news isn’t all bad: Anne Schuchat, a physician who serves as principal deputy director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said an “aggressive” approach to the nightmare bacteria could help keep them at bay.
“New data suggest that the containment strategy can prevent thousands of difficult-to-treat or potentially untreatable infections, including high-priority threat,” the CDC said in a statement.
Such an approach would be expensive, however, and also require countries around the world to get on board.
CDC epidemiologist Maroya Walters noted in an email Thursday that the issue is attracting federal dollars: Congress increased the CDC’s funding to combat antibiotic resistance by $5 million in the fiscal-year 2018 omnibus appropriations bill, pledging a total of $168 million.
“Antibiotic resistance continues to be a priority for CDC and [we have] made great strides enhancing the nation’s ability to detect and respond to antibiotic resistance in the United States,” said Walters, who leads the Antimicrobial Resistance Team of the CDC’s Prevention and Response Branch.
Jason Newland, a pediatric and infectious diseases physician at Washington University of St. Louis and the St. Louis Children’s Hospital, said both the U.S. and the world need to do more to prevent the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
A member of Infectious Diseases Society of America, Newland said the use of broad-spectrum antibiotics is on the rise in low- and middle-income countries.
Though drug development and limitations of antibiotic use appear like conflicting ideas, Newland called them crucial to the fight against superbugs.
“We have to be supporting and incentivizing new drug development because we are always going to need antibiotics, and we’re not going quit using antibiotics,” Newland said in a phone interview Wednesday. But antimicrobial stewardship programs, which monitor the use of antibiotics being prescribed and delivered in hospitals, should be common practice, Newland added. He commended pharmacists for leading that charge.
Newland also identified one blow to the cause.
Though antimicrobial stewardship programs had been proposed in June 2016 as a condition of participation for acute care hospitals that wanted Medicare and Medicaid funding, Newland said now that effort is “not gonna happen,” a shift he attributed to the political climate of deregulation.
“We definitely know, based on history over the last 80 years, that we commonly use antibiotics inappropriately,” Newland said. “So we need systems in place to make sure we’re using the antibiotics as appropriately as we possibly can.”
A study by economist Jim O’Neill, commissioned by the UK prime minister in 2014, predicts that by 2050, if we continue on a similar path of global antibiotic use, 10 million people will die annually as a result of the resistant organisms.
“We have to be doing more,” said Newland. “We just have to.”
At the new labs set up by the CDC last year, Walters said it takes public health experts as few as 13 days to identify “unusual resistance” traits after collecting the specimen. But at the beginning of the study, in the first quarter of 2017, the process took 37 days.
Once a lab has the specimen in hand, it can identify resistance in just one or two days.
Health experts emphasize that the more quickly a pathogen is identified, the greater the chance to keep it from spreading, for example to an infected patient’s family members, caregivers or health professionals.