"People keep asking me, how close are we to going off the cliff," says Dr. James Johnson, professor of infectious diseases medicine at the University of Minnesota. The cliffside free fall he is talking about is the day that drug-resistant bacteria will be able to outfox the world's entire arsenal of antibiotics. Common infections would then become untreatable.
Here's Johnson's answer: "Come on people. We're off the cliff. It's already happening. People are dying. It's right here, right now. Sure, it's going to get worse. But we're already there."
His declaration came in response to a report of a woman in Nevada who died of an incurable infection, resistant to all 26 antibiotics available in the U.S. to treat infection. Her death was reported in the Jan. 13 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That kind of bacterium is known as a "superbug," which belongs to a family of bacteria resistant to antibiotics. In cases like the Nevada woman, who was infected with Klebsiella pneumoniae, the term "nightmare superbug" has been coined because this particular specimen was even resistant to antibiotics developed as a last resort against bacterial infection.
People in the U.S. have died from so-called superbug infections before. The CDC estimates that 23,000 die every year from multidrug-resistant infections. A British report, The Review on Antimicrobial Resistance, estimates that globally, 700,000 people die each year from infections that are drug-resistant. In many of those cases, the infection's resistance was discovered too late, perhaps before a last-line, effective drug was finally initiated. In poor countries, those newer, more expensive antibiotics often are not available.