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Report: Drug-Resistant Bacterial Infections Growing in US

FILE - U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Director Julie Gerberding holds up a staph awareness poster while testifying before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on drug-resistant infections and the consequences for public health, on Capitol Hill in Washington, November 2007.
A new U.S. government report says more than two million Americans fall ill each year with drug-resistant infections, and 23,000 of them are dying as a result. Officials warn that steps must be taken now to preserve the effectiveness of antibiotic drugs.

The head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC] said the estimate of two million drug resistant infections a year is likely an underestimate, and that the number probably will grow.

Without urgent action to reverse that trend, warned Tom Frieden, whose agency wrote the report, the miracle drugs to fight them won’t be available in the future.

“If we are not careful, the medicine chest will be empty when we go there to look for a lifesaving antibiotic for someone with a deadly infection. But if we act now, we can preserve these medications while we continue to work on development of new medications.”

Among the most worrying pathogens, the report names a drug-resistant strain of the venereal disease gonorrhea and C. difficile, which causes about one quarter of a million hospitalizations in the United States annually, and at least 14,000 deaths.

Experts say a third bacterium, which goes by the initials CRE, is probably the most dangerous. It is resistant to almost all currents antibiotics, and has a very high fatality rate.

Drug resistance develops through the overuse and inappropriate use of antibacterial agents. These can be: Doctors prescribing them to patients who have viral infections that are not affected by medicine meant to fight bacteria; patients not taking all of their medicine as prescribed, so the bacteria making them sick are only weakened, not killed; antibiotic use in healthy farm animals to prevent illness and promote growth. Antibiotic residues left in meat and animal products can then lead to drug resistance in humans.

To limit the spread of resistant infections, experts recommend wider use of routine immunizations, as well as handwashing in hospitals and other health care facilities, which are reservoirs of the harmful infections. Also, the report urges handwashing by food handlers.

In a telebriefing with reporters, Michael Bell, deputy director of the Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion at CDC, said patients also can play a role in preserving the effectiveness of antibiotics by asking health care providers a few simple questions.

“'What are you doing to make sure that my mom doesn't get an antibiotic resistant infection?' Questions like that can raise awareness and open a dialogue that can be very helpful,” said Bell.

Patients recovering from joint replacement surgeries, organ transplants and cancer therapy rely on effective antibiotics to fight off infections that often follow those treatments. Experts say the increase in drug-resistant bacteria could affect the ability to safely offer people many modern medical advances.