Antibiotic Resistant Strains: America’s Hidden Healthcare Threat

One of the United States’ most pervasive health threats may be much closer to home than you think. Today, more than twenty thousand Americans are dying annually from antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections—and in Europe, the figures are slightly higher. Every year in the United States, at least two million people acquire infections that resist one or more of the antibiotics’ courses they attempt. Most frighteningly, within the last fifteen years, the number of antibiotic-resistant infections has doubled – and figures continue to rise.

Lost Productivity, Nationwide

As a consequence to the rampant growth of antibiotic-resistant strains, the United States is losing billions of dollars annually in lost wages, hospital visits, medication costs, and – most tragically - early death of productive workforce members. And with new antibiotics losing their effectiveness each year, we’re likely to see the problem surge even further.

Worst of all, when it comes to antibiotic-resistant infections, the medical community isn’t seeing the same “race for a cure” that they witness with high-profile diseases. Without celebrity endorsements and public promotions, the public is slow to catch onto the true gravity of this healthcare threat. Without public attention, funding sources dwindle, as does patient – and practitioner – awareness. Today’s public health practitioners anticipate that the “problem with bugs” will continue to grow –at least until healthcare professionals improve prescribing variability.

Microbes: A Shifty Alliance

Working with bacteria has always been a game of hit or miss, since antimicrobials – from antivirals to antifungals and more – affect each person differently. Plus, with so many antimicrobials on today’s market, it can be difficult for physicians to establish which will work – and which will fall short. According to the Centers for Disease Control, between twenty and fifty percent of antibiotics prescribed in the United States “are either unnecessary or inappropriate.”

Plus, with high mutation rates and associated medical costs, it quickly becomes obvious why large pharmaceuticals have yet to jump on the antibiotic bandwagon. Without a clear financial incentive, big pharma is hesitant to invest—which keeps patients and their healthcare providers alike in the dark.

A Global Epidemic

Looking around the world, it’s easy to recognize the widespread nature of antibiotic-resistant microbial strains. The World Health Organization is urging its constituents to recognize this global health crisis, but American legislators and entrepreneurs are slow to catch on. Sadly, only six of the world’s top fifty pharmaceutical companies are even developing antimicrobials—and it’s difficult to place blame, since rapid resistance to antimicrobials often results in a discontinuation of sales. As a result, small companies around the world are pioneering the majority of antimicrobial products. Dr. Jeff Stein, President and CEO of Cidara Therapeutics, based in San Diego, California, reports that “it costs just as much…to develop a lifesaving antimicrobial drug as it does to develop an anticancer drug.” Because antimicrobials have limited commercial opportunities, big pharmaceutical companies aren’t likely to take the bait – but smaller organizations, like Cidara, see antimicrobial revenue as “very meaningful.”

Hospitals At the Root

Though it grieves us to say it, hospitals remain breeding grounds for antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains. With doctors increasingly pressured to select the least expensive generic drugs available, it makes sense that such medications are being overused to the point of resistance. New, branded drugs cost more and are notoriously difficult to obtain.

Yet politicians are beginning to take notice, and the Generating Antibiotics Incentives Now (GAIN) Act, passed in 2012, offers hope for expediting approval of antimicrobials. Though progress has been slow, further initiatives, like the 21st Century Cures Act of 2015-16, are underway to make evaluating and approving microbial treatments more efficient.

Acknowledging the Problem – Publicly

Ultimately, the best way to address the conundrum of antibiotic-resistant bugs is to admit that we have a crisis on our hands. Keeping infection rates sealed behind closed hospital doors will seal the problem, too. For a long-term, sustainable solution, it’s imperative that IT resources and Electronic Health Record databases bring microbial activity to the forefront. In addition, healthcare providers are increasingly encouraged to reevaluate their application of antibiotics across the board.

Looking forward, we’re likely to see partnerships evolving between public and private institutions, from hospitals and healthcare centers to small pharmaceutical companies, like Cidara. As such, we’re leaning on evolving legislation to legitimize this sweeping epidemic. As this issue gains traction, public involvement will also be pivotal in saving lives and fighting the advance of the superbug.