New Antibiotics Needed as Drug Resistance Continues to Grow

Christie L. Panasevich

Nations Health. 2004;34(7) 

With health providers running short on ammunition in their battle against antibiotic-resistant infections, experts warn that the lack of investment in antibiotic research and development could cost Americans their health.

"There simply aren't enough new drugs in the pharmaceutical pipeline to keep pace with the evolution of drug-resistant bacteria, the so-called 'superbugs,'" said Joseph R. Dalovisio, MD, president of the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

Dalovisio spoke at a July Washington, D.C., news conference releasing a new report, "Bad Bugs, No Drugs: As Antibiotic Discovery Stagnates... A Public Health Crisis Brews."

Out of the 506 new drugs currently in development, only five are new antibiotics. Two years ago, out of the 89 new medications that emerged, not one was an antibiotic, Dalovisio said.

According to the report, major pharmaceutical companies have abandoned or cut back antibiotic research and development. Because antibiotics work so fast and so well, the drugs reap weak returns on investments for manufacturers. More companies invest in long-term drugs for the treatment of chronic illnesses, such as insulin for diabetes, which can be taken for a lifetime. Evolving bacteria that resist drugs make antibiotics less effective to the patient and less profitable to the manufacturing company in the long term, the report said.

"Market forces alone will not overcome these challenges and provide new antibiotics when we need them," said John G. Bartlett, MD, the chair of the Infectious Diseases Society of America's task force on antimicrobial availability, who helped prepare the report. "Policy-makers must act now, because it can take 10 or more years to bring a new antibiotic to market, and drug-resistant bacteria are evolving fast."

According to the Infectious Diseases Society of America, more than 70 percent of bacteria that causes antibiotic-resistant infections will resist at least one commonly used drug.

Campaigns to decrease antibiotic overuse have helped address the problem somewhat. Advocates such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and APHA have worked to educate both providers and patients about the risks of antibiotic resistance, which resulted in a declined use of antibiotics in 2002.

"This crisis has the potential to touch us all because drug-resistant infections can strike anyone -- young or old, healthy or chronically ill," Dalovisio said.

However, drug resistance is still occurring, as Nick Johnson, 13, of Stafford, Texas, well knows. The teen survived a life-threatening infection of methicillin-resistant bacteria in 2003. His mother, Janet Johnson, said that when her son contracted an antibiotic-resistant infection, she went from, "having a normal healthy child one day to almost losing him the next."

Through multiple doses of different antibiotics, Nick Johnson fought the bacterial infection. However, the incidents caused him to go deaf in his left ear and develop scars from his three operations.

"Until this happens to you, you never think there is anything out there that medicine can't cure," Janet Johnson said at the news conference. "We were more fortunate than a lot of patients in the hospital."

CDC has estimated that 2 million people will contract bacterial infections while in the hospital and 90,000 of them will die this year. The Infectious Diseases Society of America's report urged Congress and other decision-makers to act on the impending health crisis.

"With the threat of bioterrorism, the growing number of microorganisms resistant to drug therapy, the re-emergence of previously deadly infectious diseases and the emergence of new infectious diseases in the United States, there is an urgent need for new antimicrobials," Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said. "Infectious disease physicians clearly have valid reason to be concerned and to bring this issue to policy-makers. It is vital that antibiotics research and development is reinvigorated so doctors have the medicine they need to protect the health of millions of Americans."

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