A Nevada woman has died from an infection resistant to all available antibiotics in the United States, public health officials report.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the woman’s condition was deemed incurable after being tested against 26 different antibiotics.
Though this isn’t the first case of pan-resistant bacteria in the U.S., at this time it is still uncommon. Still, experts note that antibiotic resistance is a growing health concern globally and call the newly reported case “a wake up call.”
“This is the latest reminder that yes, antibiotic resistance is real,” Dr. James Johnson, a professor specializing in infectious diseases at the University of Minnesota Medical School, told CBS News. “This is not some future, fantasized armageddon threat that maybe will happen after our lifetime. This is now, it’s real, and it’s here.”
According to the report, the woman from Washoe County was in her 70s and had recently returned to America after an extended trip to India. She had been hospitalized there several times before being admitted to an acute care hospital in Nevada in mid-August.
Doctors discovered the woman was infected with carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE), which is a family of germs that CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden has called “nightmare bacteria” due to the danger it poses for spreading antibiotic resistance.
The woman had a specific type of CRE, called Klebsiella pneumoniae, which can lead to a number of illnesses, including pneumonia, blood stream infections, and meningitis. In early September, she developed septic shock and died.
The authors of the report say the case highlights the need for doctors and hospitals to ask incoming patients about recent travel and if they have been hospitalized elsewhere.
Other experts say it underscores the need for the medical community, the government and the public to take antibiotic resistance more seriously.
According to the CDC, at least two million people become infected with antibiotic resistant bacteria each year, and at least 23,000 die as a direct result of these infections. The World Health Organization calls antibiotic resistance “one of the biggest threats to global health.”
A grim report released last year suggests that if bacteria keep evolving at the current rate, by 2050, superbugs will kill 10 million people a year.
While scientists are working to develop new antibiotics, that takes time, and experts encourage doctors and the public to focus on prevention efforts.
One of the most important ways to prevent antibiotic resistance is to only take antibiotics only when they’re necessary.
“Drug resistance like this [case] generally develops from too much exposure to antibiotics,” assistant professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and director of the Pediatric Antimicrobial Stewardship Program at The Johns Hopkins Hospital, told CBS News. “Every time you’re placed on an antibiotic it’s important to question if it’s absolutely necessary and what’s the shortest amount of time you can take this antibiotic for it to still be effective.”
Johnson notes that medical tourism – the practice of traveling to another country to obtain medical treatment, typically at lower cost – may no longer be worth the risk. “With this [antibiotic] resistance issue, the risk/benefit of this approach really changes and I think that people really need to be aware and seriously consider if it’s a good idea given the possibility of this kind of thing,” he said.
Frequent hand washing, particularly in healthcare settings, is also extremely important in preventing the spread of germs.
Finally, Johnson says the public can play an important role in advocating for prevention of antibiotic resistance. While important to develop new antibiotics, “the efforts are not as strong for helping us use our existing antibiotics intelligently,” he told CBS News.
“There’s definitely something sexy about the notion of developing the ‘new super antibiotic’ to fight the superbug. It’s like a cartoon with our mega hero against our mega villain,” Johnson said. “But really we have a lot of great antibiotics right now but we’re using them in silly ways. There are organized, systematic ways that public health systems, healthcare systems, and for that matter veterinary and animal food production systems, can roll out to use our existing drugs more sensibly to slow down the freight train that is heading toward – or partly going off — the cliff with antibiotic resistance.”