In 2015, World Health Organization head Margaret Chan cautioned that antibiotic- resistant superbugs may “mean the end of modern medicine as we know it.” According to data analysis by the UK Sepsis Trust, superbugs now cause more deaths than breast cancer. While the exact figures cannot be confirmed, there is agreement that the world is bordering on a post-antibiotic era because of a surge in the use of the “last ditch” drugs. Carbapenems, a group of drugs that were considered the last line of defense against complex infections caused by E. coli and other gut-dwelling organisms, began to fail, which prompted a surge in the use of the antibiotic colistin.
First introduced in 1959, colistin remained largely untouched in hospitals, but as use of colistin in clinical settings increases so does resistance to it. The evolution and dispersal of colistin-resistant bacteria is largely a result of the use of this drug in the agricultural industry. Because of its low cost, colistin is often added to the food of millions of animals, making it possible for the MCR–the gene that directs colistin resistance–to move from animals to people without being noticed. MCR was first discovered in China in 2015 and has since been found in Malaysia, Portugal, Denmark, Canada, the United States, and many other countries. If MCR ends up intermingling with bacteria already resistant to carbapenems inside a person, animal, or even on a piece of meat, the world could be faced with untreatable and life threatening infections.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates 23,000 superbug-related deaths per year, but that is guesswork. To come up with this number, the CDC used a survey on deaths related antimicrobial resistance in eleven US states and extrapolated the results to the entire US population. But the actual death count is likely double the official estimate. Superbugs are rarely listed on death certificates and hospitals are reluctant to record drug-resistant infections.
Although the superbug epidemic is well documented in scientific publications, government and health officials are less forthcoming. More than fifteen years ago, the US government declared drug-resistant infections to be a critical threat. The CDC and state health departments do not have the political, legal, and financial means to establish a rigorous system to monitor the spread of resistance.
Malden Davies, “Superbugs Killing Twice as Many People as Government Says,” Bureau of Investigative Journalism, November 12, 2016, https://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/stories/2016-12-11/superbugs-killing-twice-as-many-people-as-government-says.
David Gutierrez, “Superbugs Now Killing More Americans Than Breast Cancer… The Scourge Of Antibiotics Continues,” Medicine.News, January 16, 2017, http://medicine.news/2017-01-15-superbugs-now-killing-more-americans-than-breast-cancer-the-scourge-of-antibiotics-continues.html.
Kate Morley and Madlen Davies, “Superbugs Killing More People Than Breast Cancer, Trust Warns,” Telegraph, December 10, 2016, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/12/10/superbugs-killing-people-breast-cancer-trust-warns/
Melinda Wenner Moyer, “Dangerous New Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria Reach U.S.,” Scientific American, May 27, 2016, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/dangerous-new-antibiotic-resistant-bacteria-reach-u-s/
Student Researcher: Bridgette McShea (University of Vermont)
Faculty Evaluator: Rob Williams (University of Vermont)