We’ve been warned for years that the over-prescription of antibiotics and the overuse of antibacterial products could be creating new “superbugs”—bacteria that have evolved to have a resistance to these agents. This spring, these warnings unfortunately became a reality, as scientists at the CDC announced that a superbug that is resistant to even those antibiotics used as a last line of defense had been found in a Pennsylvania woman. This antibiotic-resistant bacterium was first identified in 2015 in China, but this was the first instance of it being found in a patient in the United States.
It can be frightening when something like this, which sounds like science fiction, becomes science fact. The best way to alleviate any concerns is to learn more about what this superbug is, ways that you can stay safe, and what it means for healthcare in the US. Here’s what you should know.
It’s Rare But Not Unheard Of
According to the CDC, no fewer than 2 million people become sick each year from bacteria that have become antibiotic-resistant. This results in at least 23,000 deaths each year. What makes this superbug different from other bacteria that don’t respond to antibiotics is that this bacterium did not respond to treatment with Colistin. Unlike other antibiotics that are commonly prescribed, colistin is a “last resort” drug. Bacteria would have less opportunity to evolve resistance to it (via mutations or by exchanging genes), because they are less frequently exposed to this specific drug. Colistin is a last-resort drug for E. Coli, and the superbug identified in Pennsylvania was a strain of E. Coli. While bacteria that are resistant to some antibiotics are not uncommon, this particular bacterium essentially is resistant to all available antibiotics.
Some People Are at Greater Risk
People with any kind of immunosuppression—whether as a result of disease or because of a particular medication—are at an increased risk of infection with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. People in these categories should be vigilant about basic health practices (like regular hand washing). It’s also important to stay up-to-date on vaccinations; lowering your risk of catching the flu, shingles, or other viruses that could further depress the immune system give these people a better chance at recovery from bacteria-related illnesses.
Superbugs Aren’t Everywhere
Most of the time, the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria can be linked to at least one of several factors. These include recent exposure to someone who has that bacteria, recent travel to a country where that bacterium has been identified, and exposure to the bacteria in a hospital setting. Even though hospitals work hard to maintain a clean and hygienic environment, according to the CDC on any given day roughly 1 in 25 hospitalized patients have a healthcare-associated infection. This translates to about 2 million infections per year and roughly 90,000 deaths. This should not, of course, mean that you must avoid hospitals. However, if you need treatment that could be provided outside of a hospital setting, it’s worth weighing infection risk when you’re making decisions about your care.
You Can Take Steps to Stay Safe
Of course, you aren’t in a hospital unless you are already ill or you require treatment or surgery. Still, there are many ways you can stay safe at home. First, always be sure to properly clean areas where food is prepared, and to cook all meat to a safe internal temperature. Regular hand washing is important, but plain soap and water is fine—there’s actually no evidence that using antibacterial soaps or household cleaners provide a public health benefit, and many researchers are concerned that this kind of overuse of antibacterial products simply provides more opportunity for bacteria to develop immunity. Last, if you have an illness where antibiotic treatment is indicated, it may be worthwhile to ask your doctor if there is another option or if you can take a shorter course of treatment. (Depending on your illness and the medication, there may be options available that take as little as three days.) When antibiotics are warranted, make sure that you take them properly: Failing to take the entire course, even if you feel better, gives bacteria ample chance to develop resistance.
At the Spine Institute Northwest, we take every precaution to ensure that our outpatient clinic is a safe, hygienic environment for our patients. We do everything we can to minimize your risk of infection, and because minimally invasive spine surgery is performed on an outpatient basis and involves only a tiny incision, there is already a reduced risk of infection when compared to other forms of treatment. To learn more, call us at 206-496-0630.