Deaths Linked to Drug-Resistant Bacteria Put Antibiotics into the Spotlight

35,000 deaths per year stem from antibiotic-resistant "superbugs"

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Antibiotic-resistant infections cause 35,000 deaths annually in the United States, according to the CDC. A new study shows that nearly 100 times that many Americans—2.8 million—acquire the same type of infections but live through them. Are we entering a “post-antibiotic age?”

Virus cells or bacteria concept
New strains of antibiotic-resistant “super bugs” are labeled as multidrug-resistant bacteria, or as extensively drug resistant. Photo by Billion Photos / Shutterstock

The CDC report said that out of the nearly three million people in the United States to suffer from antibiotic-resistant infections every year, over 223,000 of them had to be admitted to hospitals for treatment. The number is especially staggering considering the report excluded both viruses and parasites. Fortunately, deaths have decreased 18 percent since the initial study of antibiotic-resistant infections, which studied cases in 2013. Yet humans and germs each find themselves in a kind of escalating war to survive the other.

Ancient Egyptian Beer Therapy

Although widespread use of penicillin only dates back to the 1940s, ancient Egyptians made enormous contributions to the field of medical research through a less likely source—beer.

“Egyptian beer was actually therapeutic and commonly used to treat wounds,” said Dr. Bruce E. Fleury, Professor of the Practice in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Tulane University. “Both the beer and the yeast preparation that was used to make it contained an antibiotic, tetracycline.”

According to Dr. Fleury, with no packet of yeast to buy from a local grocery store, Egyptians had a less refined method of getting yeast into their bread.

“They just put the raw dough out and exposed it to the air where it would pick up some yeast cells that were floating through the atmosphere,” he said. “But at the same time, that exposed the bread to all kinds of contamination by other microbes. Because they used partially baked bread in the brewing process, that’s how they probably introduced spores of the bacterium Streptomyces, which later produced the tetracycline.”

Since beer is a more challenging chemical environment for tetracycline than bread, it flourished. However, ancient Egyptian beer is a far cry from what we get at the grocery store today, so picking up a six-pack won’t exactly cure a 21st-century bacterial infection.

MDR and XDR Bacteria

“Antibiotics are becoming less and less effective against more and more diseases,” Dr. Fleury said. “By the late 1980s, microbial resistance had reached alarming proportions, but that didn’t stop the medical establishment from continuing to overprescribe antibiotics, nor did it stop agribusiness from force-feeding them to healthy cattle and poultry.”

This overuse of antibiotics has created new strains of drug-resistant “superbugs.” The sexually transmitted disease gonorrhea, Dr. Fleury said, became resistant to penicillin by 1970 and to tetracycline the following decade.

“We call these kinds of strains MDR, which stands for Multiple Drug Resistant,” Dr. Fleury said. “An MDR strain is one that resists several drugs; if it resists most or all drugs, we call it an XDR strain—Extensively Drug Resistant.”

According to Dr. Fleury, MDR germs evolve in multiple ways. They may alter the surface of their cell membranes, effectively disguising themselves from antibiotics; or they may develop and excrete an enzyme that renders a drug ineffective.

“All of these changes can be inherited by the bacteria, so bacteria can evolve resistance very, very quickly,” he said. “The pace of microbial evolution is extremely rapid; bacteria evolve 1,000 times faster than we do.”

Dr. Fleury is Professor of the Practice in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Tulane University

Dr. Bruce E. Fleury contributed to this article. Dr. Fleury is Professor of the Practice in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Tulane University. He earned a B.A. from the University of Rochester in Psychology and General Science, and an M.A. in Library, Media, and Information Studies from the University of South Florida. He earned an M.S. and a Ph.D. in Biology, both from Tulane.