The United States may be treading on a path to a post-antibiotics era, when more people will die from common infections.
In a study published Thursday, Defense Department researchers have confirmed the discovery of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the urine of a Pennsylvania woman who visited a military clinic last month.
Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the discovery could mean that we are at the "end of the road" for the antibiotics that we have relied on for so many years. Frieden and other public health officials have long warned against the overuse of antibiotics, which has helped to breed what are known as "superbugs."
He said the woman in Pennsylvania has a urinary tract infection that is resistant to "every antibiotic, including the last one we have, colistin, an old antibiotic. It was the only one left for what I've called 'nightmare bacteria.'" That family of bacteria include Carbapenem-Resistant Enterobacteriaceae, or CRE, which the CDC says is the country's most urgent public health threat.
Medicine cabinet ‘empty’
Frieden said the concern is not just for fighting "bad infections — pneumonia, urinary tract infections," but for the thousands of particularly vulnerable patients, like the "600,000 Americans a year who need cancer treatment, for whom we just assume we'll treat infections."
For some of them, he said, "the medicine cabinet is empty."
Antibiotics revolutionized medicine in the mid-20th century, making surgeries safer. If infections can't be treated by antibiotics, people could die from small wounds or minor surgery.
Bacteria are constantly evolving, so those that survive the drugs designed to kill them reproduce. That's normal, and antibiotics themselves do not cause resistance, but improper antibiotic use is one of the key drivers for the development of antibiotic-resistant germs.
To make matters worse, most people don't understand that antibiotics can be effective only against bacterial infections, not for viruses like the flu or a cold.
The CDC says more than 2 million people are infected by drug-resistant germs each year, and 23,000 die of their infections.
Nearly untreatable cases of diarrhea, sepsis, pneumonia and gonorrhea are infecting millions more globally, according to the World Health Organization.
VOA Health Reporter Carol Pearson contributed to this report.