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CDC Head: Age of Antibiotic Resistance Is Nigh

"Antimicrobial resistance is a big problem and it's getting worse," said Dr. Tom Frieden.

Micrograph of Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)

Micrograph of Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). (Photo: NIAID)

The growing threat of antibiotic resistance requires imminent action, the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned Tuesday.

Speaking at a National Press Club event, Dr. Tom Frieden said, "Antimicrobial resistance is a big problem and it's getting worse." It's a problem that costs lives as well as $20 billion in healthcare costs, he said.

"We talk about a pre-antibiotic era and the antibiotic era. If we're not careful, we will soon be in a post-antibiotic era. And in fact for some patients and some pathogens, we're already there."

The CDC issued a report last year to increase awareness of the problem of some infections becoming resistant to antibiotics as a result of both overuse and misuse in humans and farm animals. The World Health Organization also issued a warning earlier this year, stating that a post-antibiotic era, "far from being an apocalyptic fantasy, is instead a very real possibility for the 21st century."

As the CDC has previously warned, Frieden said, "Antibiotic resistance could affect any of us," noting that such infections strike 2 million Americans every year, with 23,000 of those being deadly.

Two problems result from antimicrobial resistance, he said. One is that more common infections, like urinary tract infections or pneumonias, are becoming antibiotic resistant. Secondly, Frieden stresses, is that treating infections is key to modern medicine. Patients receiving chemotherapy or dialysis, for example, have compromised immune systems and may depend on antibiotics for treatment of infections they incur, so "our ability to give these cutting-edge treatments is at risk because of the spread of drug resistance," he said.

Stopping the problem, he said, requires four things: better detection, better control, better prevention and more innovation.

To meet these objectives, Frieden emphasized the need for funding for a CDC initiative proposed in the 2015 budget. The initiative, which would help healthcare providers track patterns in antibiotic use, could cut the two deadliest risks—CRE, which Frieden has called "nightmare bacteria," and Clostridium difficile, often referred to as CDF—in half.

"Every day that we delay means that it will be harder and more expensive to fix this problem tomorrow," Frieden said.

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