You know those people who scoff at hand sanitizers and anti-bacterial soaps, saying that it’s better to let our bodies deal with the germs? Those people have, depending on their righteousness and vehemence, annoyed me quite a bit over the years. But I have to say, it looks like they may be right. Hear that? That’s me eating crow. It doesn’t taste very good.
The Center for Disease Control’s recent report, “Antibiotic resistance threats in the United States,” details health threats posed by antibiotic-resistant bacteria and infections. The CDC reports that 2 million people each year get antibiotic-resistant infections, and about 23,000 people die from them each year. That number goes up if you factor in other conditions made worse by such bacteria. Most of those deaths occur in hospitals and nursing homes, which, on the one hand is to be expected, given that they’re bacterial breeding grounds, but on the other hand, it’s surprising given the extent of anti-bacterial measures practiced. It’s kind of scary to think that the concept of hospitals making people sicker might not simply be the product of trypanophobics (people who are afraid of needles) or latrophobics (people who are afraid of doctors).
The CDC has ranked the threat level of particular organisms based on the imminence of their threat and available effective treatments. Of that list, there are three threats the CDC calls “urgent”: carbapenem-resistant enterobacteriaceae, which are common among patients in healthcare settings and include E. coli; a strain of gonorrhea that only responds to one type of drug; and clostridium difficile, another infection commonly associated with healthcare settings that is rapidly becoming resistant to treatment. Other infections deemed “serious” threats include salmonella, candida, and tuberculosis, among others.
Of course, infection and death aren’t the only negative consequences. How about those rising healthcare costs? Illnesses and death caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria account for roughly $20 billion in additional spending on healthcare each year (I think my own premiums comprise roughly half of that), and because of the increased number of people getting sick, we lose roughly $35 billion in what the CDC calls “foregone productivity.” That happens to me all the time, illness or not, but I’m glad I don’t keep track of the cost.
The report is the first of its kind — CDC has never before offered hard numbers to support the contention that antibacterial organisms are a threat, nor has it previously articulated just how serious a threat they are. Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the CDC, warns that “if we are not careful, we will soon be in a post-antibiotic era.” Well…that doesn’t sound so good. If we don’t have antibiotics, we’ll have to resort to leeches, voodoo, and neti pots. It’s pretty much only good news if you’re a brain-eating amoeba.
The report also includes recommendations for addressing this growing threat. The CDC says that healthcare and agriculture have both contributed to this trend, and they suggest a four-pronged approach including information gathering; prevention (they specifically suggest vaccinations and protective behaviors in hospitals and in the handling of foods); improving and/or limiting the use of antibiotics; and developing new antibiotics as well as new tests for identifying resistant organisms.
So, next time you reach for your hand sanitizer, maybe you should think twice. In fact, maybe you should just roll around in the mud or cozy up next to that person on the bus who’s coughing and sniffling. Give your own antibodies a chance to flex their muscles. The CDC didn’t say that the threat could reach zombie apocalypse levels, but we all know that’s what they’re thinking.