Drug-resistant diseases grow as threat to public health - NBC12.com - Richmond, VA News

Drug-resistant diseases grow as threat to public health

Posted: Updated:
CDC microbiologist Tatiana Travis sets up a test to detect drug-resistant pathogens. (Source: CDC) CDC microbiologist Tatiana Travis sets up a test to detect drug-resistant pathogens. (Source: CDC)

(RNN) - An increasing risk from drug-resistant diseases threatens to wipe out decades of medical progress, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The study showed that resistant microbes kill at least 23,000 people each year and complicate treatment and recovery for 2 million more.

Health professionals characterize the threat as the largest challenge facing modern medicine.

"We are approaching a cliff," said Michael Bell, deputy director of CDC's Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion in a news release. "If we don't take steps to slow or stop drug resistance, we will fall back to a time when simple infections killed people."

When faced with "superbugs," physicians must resort to second- and third-line treatments, which may be more expensive or toxic for patients.

Resistant infections are also costly to the healthcare system. The CDC estimates the care costs from these diseases are as high as $20 billion a year and lost productivity as high as $35 billion a year.

The rise of resistant infections also threatens patients who receive advanced therapies, such as joint replacements, organ transplants and cancer treatments. Antibiotics are key to fighting their infections.

"If the ability to effectively treat those infections is lost, the ability to safely offer people many of the life-saving and life-improving modern medical advances will be lost with it," the CDC stated.

Plan of attack

Bacteria naturally develop resistance to antibiotics over time through use - and misuse - of antibiotics, CDC researchers noted.

"Every time antibiotics are used in any setting, bacteria evolve by developing resistance. This process can happen with alarming speed," said Dr. Steve Solomon, director of CDC's Office of Antimicrobial Resistance.

The agency said as many as 50 percent of the antibiotics prescribed for humans are not needed or misused. Much of the antibiotics used in farm animals are also unnecessary.

Drug-resistant microbes can be traced to the 1940s, according to the World Health Organization. The first one, staphylococcus aureus, was discovered four years after the mass production of penicillin in 1943.

Superbugs are a worldwide problem. For instance, a resistant tuberculosis strain is gaining ground, particularly in areas of the former Soviet Union, according to the WHO.

The CDC has developed four plans of attack to fight these diseases: preventing the spread of resistant infections, tracking resistance patterns, improving the use of current antibiotics and developing new antibiotics and tests.

"Because antibiotic resistance occurs as part of a natural process in which bacteria evolve, it can be slowed but not completely stopped," the CDC stated. "Therefore, new antibiotics always will be needed to keep up with resistant bacteria, as will new tests to track the development of resistance."

The public can help by getting immunized, handling food safely, using antibiotics as prescribed and practicing basic hygiene such as washing hands.

Patients should dispose of any antibiotic remnants properly, with the best option being taking unwanted medicine to a drug take-back program. The Drug Enforcement Administration's Drug Take-Back Day is April 1.

The FDA also has developed advice for how to best dispose of an assortment of drugs.

Food supply issues

Animals used in food are given antibiotics to prevent and treat disease, as well as make these animals gain weight faster with less feed.

According to a PBS report, "small doses of antibiotics administered daily would make most animals gain as much as 3 percent more weight than they otherwise would."

The drugs are added to the animals' feed and sometimes to the drinking water. But their overuse, experts say, is likely compromising human health, as drug-resistant microbes can be transferred from animals to the humans who eat them.

The countries of the European Union have forbidden the use of antibiotics to promote animal growth.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has released a voluntary plan, along with industry, to phase out antibiotic use in farm animals to bolster production.

Some question whether the FDA is doing enough to protect the food supply.

The Natural Resources Defense Council noted that a decade-long FDA assessment classified 18 of the 30 feed additives as having a "high risk" of exposing the public to drug-resistant bacteria through the food supply, in a report the environmental advocacy group released late last month. 

"The FDA concluded in their review that at least 26 of the reviewed feed additives do not satisfy even the safety standards set by FDA in 1973," the report stated.

The NRDC, which based its report on data the FDA released as part of a Freedom of Information Act request, also criticized the agency for making its antibiotics reduction voluntary.

A coalition of meat producers, however, questions the danger of antibiotics use.

It characterizes the health risks of antibiotics in meat as "negligible," according to a 2012 news release from the National Chicken Council. They claim that antibiotics are needed, and the restrictions of the drugs' use is more stringent that the use of antibiotics in humans.

Copyright 2014 Raycom News Network. All rights reserved.

Powered by WorldNow