The World Health Organization issued a report in 2014 warning that the world was on the cusp of a post-antibiotic era in which even common infections and illnesses can kill. On Thursday, a Department of Defense (DOD) report confirmed the first case of a drug-resistant superbug in a person in the United States, sparking concern that the “post-antibiotic era” that once seemed like an apocalyptic fantasy could actually be upon us.
The antibiotic-resistant bacteria was discovered on April 26th, 2016 in the urine sample of a 49-year-old Pennsylvania woman being treated for symptoms indicative of a urinary tract infection. The sample was sent to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center where researchers determined that she carried a strain of E. coli resistant to the antibiotic colistin, which is known as an “antibiotic of last resort” used to treat only the most resistant superbugs.
The patient reported no travel history in the past five months. The CDC said it is working with the state health department in Pennsylvania to talk to the patient and her family to see how she may have been infected. It is believed to be the first time colistin-resistant bacteria was found in a person in the United States.
At this point in time, the prevalence of the superbug in the population has not been determined.
The discovery “heralds the emergence of truly pan-drug resistant bacteria,” according to the DOD researchers in their report published in the journal Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported that more than two million Americans a year are infected with bacteria resistant infections, resulting in 23,000 deaths annually. Those numbers could increase exponentially over the next several decades.
Superbugs could claim 10 million lives a year and could cost a cumulative $100 trillion of economic output by 2050, according to a global review on antimicrobial resistance (AMR).
“Although AMR is a massive challenge, it is one that I believe is well within our ability to tackle effectively,” said Jim O’Neill, who chairs the Review on AMR. “The human and economic costs compel us to act: if we fail to do so, the brunt of these will be borne by our children and grandchildren, and felt most keenly in the poorest parts of the world.”
Is this the end of the antibiotic era?
CDC Director Tom Frieden told the Washington Post that, “It basically shows us that the end of the road isn’t very far away for antibiotics — that we may be in a situation where we have patients in our intensive-care units, or patients getting urinary tract infections for which we do not have antibiotics.”
“I’ve been there for TB patients. I’ve cared for patients for whom there are no drugs left. It is a feeling of such horror and helplessness,” Frieden added. “This is not where we need to be.”
Several years ago, Dr. Stuart Levy, chairman and founder of the Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics Board, told Homeland Security Today that the key to preventing a post-antibiotic era is greater commitment from industry and government worldwide. Levy advocates a concerted global effort to help companies discover new drugs. Additionally, doctors need to stop overprescribing antibiotics.
“You have resistance mounting and drugs failing in what many have called the ‘perfect storm,’” said Levy. “Bacteria are survivors.”
Levy added, “The current American situation can be described as this: a rise in resistance and a fall in new drugs. What we need to see is the rise of new drugs, and the fall of resistance."
Now that the nightmare of antibiotic resistant superbugs has hit home, it remains to be seen whether the nation will overcome its complacency and take action—before it’s too late.