The common medical practice of giving patients antibiotics to ward off infections during surgery or chemotherapy is contributing to a rise in “superbugs” — bacteria that resist most treatments — and could lead to thousands more deaths if it’s not kept in check as microbes’ resistance increases, according to a study report published online Thursday in the journal The Lancet Infectious Diseases.
The study also found that using antibiotics on a preventive basis with such patients doesn’t stop many infections. Surgery patients in the United States still developed an estimated 157,000 infections in 2011, and 3 percent of them were fatal, it said. Given growing concerns about the overuse of antibiotic drugs, the researchers wanted to determine how many more infections and deaths might be caused if bacteria continue to become more resistant.
The study identified the 10 most common surgical procedures in the U.S., including hip replacement and appendectomies, as well as cancer chemotherapy. It reviewed data from a review of the available randomized, controlled studies looking at the effectiveness of preventive antibiotic use for these procedures between 1968 and 2011. The new study was led by Dr. Ramanan Laxminarayan, director of the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy, a health research and policy organization based in Washington, D.C.
The authors said they determined that antibiotic-resistant bacteria caused nearly 40 percent of infections acquired during caesarean sections, and are responsible for 27 percent of infections during cancer chemotherapy.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that at least 2 million people are infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria each year.
In the study report published Thursday, the researchers said they determined that if antibiotics become 30 percent less effective during these procedures, an additional 120,000 more infections would occur in the U.S. each year and cause an estimated 6,300 more related deaths.
“A lot of common surgical procedures and cancer chemotherapy will be virtually impossible if antibiotic resistance is not tackled urgently,” Laxminarayan said in a news release. “Not only is there an immediate need for up-to-date information to establish how antibiotic prophylaxis recommendations should be modified in the face of increasing resistance, but we also need new strategies for the prevention and control of antibiotic resistance at national and international levels.”
The World Health Organization has called antibiotic resistance a global crisis, and President Barack Obama in March released a national plan to tamp down on the problem.