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Understanding The Threat Of Resistant Infections

A new health threat called antimicrobial resistance can be traced to the misuse of antibiotics. 

By Julie Davis

"People assume that antibiotics will always be there to fight the worst infections, but antimicrobial resistance is robbing us of that certainty and new drug-resistant pathogens are emerging," explains US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Thomas R. Frieden, MD, MPH. "It’s not enough to hope that we’ll have effective drugs to combat these infections. We must all act now to safeguard this important resource."

Antimicrobial resistance—when germs change in a way that reduces or eliminates the effectiveness of the drugs used to treat them—is a growing global problem. Antimicrobial treatments, such as antibiotics, antivirals, antifungals and other medications, are some of the most important tools used to combat life‐threatening diseases. However, inappropriate use of these drugs means they may not work when you really need them and in fact can increase your chance of acquiring an antimicrobial-resistant infection. It’s estimated that about half of all antimicrobials, particularly antibiotics, are unnecessarily or inappropriately prescribed in US hospitals and doctors’ offices. And these prescriptions cost over $1 billion a year.

The CDC has started a program aimed at patients, healthcare providers, hospital administrators and policy makers to employ effective strategies for improving antimicrobial use and, ultimately, save lives.

The Problem Of Resistant Infections

We can acquire resistant infections in many places, including the hospital. In the US, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, known as MRSA, is a problem in many health care settings. Drug-resistant Klebsiella pneumoniae, previously seen in a limited number of hospitals, has now been reported in at least 36 states.

In your community, you may be exposed to resistant bacteria that cause pneumococcal disease ranging from ear and sinus infections to pneumonia and meningitis, which can be deadly. In 2009, an estimated 34 percent of cases of invasive pneumococcal disease in the US resisted at least one antibiotic and 16 percent resisted at least three antibiotics. When treatment options aren’t available for pneumococcal disease, illnesses can last longer or even be fatal.

Some cases of the H1N1 flu and influenza A (H3N2) have also shown resistance to some of the antivirals used to treat them. Resistance of influenza A viruses to antiviral drugs can occur spontaneously or emerge rapidly during the course of antiviral treatment. This resistance to one or more of the licensed influenza antiviral agents among some circulating influenza virus strains complicates influenza treatment.

In addition to the health risks of these infections, there are other serious consequences. Resistant infections are often more severe, leading to longer hospital stays and increased costs for treatment. According to recent US data, people end up spending a total of more than 8 million extra days in the hospital to treat them.

What’s Being Done

Using antibiotics appropriately can limit the spread of antibiotic resistance, preserving antibiotics for the future. The CDC has created various programs promoting appropriate antibiotic use in community and healthcare settings as one of many strategies to combat antibiotic resistance. The CDC works with state health departments, professional organizations and other partners to tackle the spread of drug-resistant infections in healthcare facilities through the prevention of healthcare-associated infections.

You can help prevent antibiotic resistance as well. First, take steps to prevent infections by practicing good hygiene and getting recommended vaccines—that means an annual flu shot for you and your loved ones, along with other vaccines recommended for seniors in particular.

Next, help reduce the threat of antimicrobial resistance by not pressuring your doctors for antibiotics when they aren’t really needed, by not sharing, saving or taking antibiotics indiscriminately and, when they are properly prescribed by a doctor, by taking them exactly as prescribed, including the entire amount prescribed.