Researchers at the University of Texas have found that infections of a leading intestinal superbug nearly doubled in U.S. hospitals from 2001 to 2010, providing new evidence about the growing threat posed by illnesses resistant to antibiotic treatments.
According to a study in The American Journal of Infection Control, the results of which were released this week, the number of hospitalized adults infected with Clostridium difficile, one of the most common digestive tract infections, rose from 4.5 to 8.2 percent. The bacterium, which causes severe diarrhea, is blamed for the deaths of more than 14,000 people per year.
While the discovery of penicillin in 1928 and the subsequent wide-scale use of antibiotics to treat illnesses have saved countless lives over the decades, their prevalence has come with an increasingly potent side effect: overuse of medications, which has led to a surge in infection-causing bacteria that have become resistant to most antibiotics.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has estimated that at least 2 million infections and more than 23,000 deaths each year are caused by highly resistant bacteria in the U.S. alone, according to a 2013 report. Many more people die from conditions that are complicated by antibiotic-resistant infections, the agency said.
Various strains of tuberculosis and staph infections have also become more difficult to treat with conventional drugs.
“Approximately 50 percent of all antibiotic use is unnecessary,” Kelly Reveles, lead author of the study and an associate professor in clinical biology, told Al Jazeera.
Sometimes, she said, patients are treated with antibiotics even when their illnesses are viral, which antibiotics cannot treat.
The rise in superbugs is also attributed to patients’ being treated with a cocktail of several antibiotics, which increases treatment efficiency but leads to overuse.
“Some of the bigger problems is just having patients on multiple antibiotics when maybe they just need one,” said Reveles. “Patients will get a combination of two, three antibiotics, when they’re only infected with one specific type of bacteria. We need to put a lot more effort into prevention.”
In a first step toward increasing prevention efforts in U.S. hospitals, the White House issued an executive order in September to come up with a national strategy on combating dangerous bacteria, warning about scenarios in which there are no effective remedies for treating bacterial diseases.
“As more strains of bacteria become resistant to an ever-larger number of antibiotics, our drug choices have become increasingly limited and more expensive and, in some cases, nonexistent,” the White House said in its call to action (PDF). “In a world with few effective antibiotics, modern medical advances such as surgery, transplants and chemotherapy may no longer be viable due to the threat of infection."
Despite the dangerous uptick in superbugs, experts like Reveles believe it’s not too late to begin to change public health standards.
Personally monitoring patients using antibiotics and improving infection control in hospitals, she said, should lead to a decline in antibiotic use and the number of infections.