CDC offers new call to arms on nightmare bacteria

GWEN IFILL: Doctors and health authorities are increasingly sounding the alarm about the growth of drug-resistant bacteria.

In the United States, they infect at least two million people and kill 23,000 each year. Today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a call to slow the rate of hospital-acquired infections, which alone account for more than 600,000 cases.

One particular bacteria is accountable for 15,000 of those deaths. The CDC is urging hospitals, health departments and others to change their approach to the germs' spread, action that it says could save 37,000 lives.

Dr. Michael Bell is a deputy director there who specializes in infectious diseases. He joins me now.

Welcome, Dr. Bell.

Explain to us in layman's terms, first of all, what are drug-resistant infections?

DR. MICHAEL BELL, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Ah.

So, when we talk about drug resistance, we're talking about antibiotic resistance. We're talking about germs that can cause infections, which normally we could have treated with antibiotics, but now we can't. The germs continue to develop new ways of getting around the antibiotic.

GWEN IFILL: What is the source of these germs?

DR. MICHAEL BELL: Well, the germs come from all over the place. You're surrounded by them. We're covered in them. We're full of them.

The environment that they live in is the same one that we inhabit. The key is to keep them from going places where they don't belong and, if they do get there, to be able to treat them. And that's the challenge with antibiotic resistance.

GWEN IFILL: So we focus a lot on the kind of superbugs we hear about in hospitals, but you're saying that these bugs, these germs are everywhere?

DR. MICHAEL BELL: Germs in general are, in fact, everywhere. Superbugs are often found in hospitals, because that's where people with either devices like catheters or surgical wounds tend to be, and those are also people who tend to get antibiotics.

When you put those together, it's a great way to generate more of these very resistant bacteria.

GWEN IFILL: What is it about antibiotics that makes these germs take hold or stops their — or makes it difficult for them to stop spreading, I guess?

DR. MICHAEL BELL: Well, so the issue that we're facing is that, in the past, we would have antibiotic resistance to one or two drugs, but we had more drugs in the pipeline. Right now, we're coming awfully close to the cliff, where we don't have new drugs coming on the market very soon, and, at the same time, these bacteria, the nightmare bacteria, are developing more and more resistance to a wider range of drugs.

So, that means not only that we won't be able to treat an infection. What worries us a great deal is that we're going to lose the ability to deliver types of care that we take for granted. So, for example, surgery, if I'm in a traffic accident, I can be repaired by a talented surgeon, but without antibiotics, I might very well die from an infection of the wound.

Similarly, with cancer treatment, if my immune system has to be turned down temporarily, that's fine for the cancer treatment, but without antibiotics, I might die from an infection. So, there's a lot about modern health care that hinges on the availability of good antibiotics.

GWEN IFILL: What would it cost for us to start to implement some of the ideas, some of the recommendations that the CDC is making to head this off?

DR. MICHAEL BELL: It's all about scale.

We know that the techniques and approaches that we discussed in a press conference today, where multiple hospitals collaborate, inform each other and work with the health department to give each others heads-up of hot spots of infection, of patients who might be carrying something, this is a very good thing.

And some health departments, some health care systems are already doing it. But they're in the very small minority. And so what we're looking at is making it possible for all patients in this country to benefit from that kind of coordinated care.

GWEN IFILL: Who is at risk at most, and what do we do? Just simply wash our hands?

DR. MICHAEL BELL: In terms of what we can do as individuals, yes, handwashing is great. Insisting that people wash their hands before they touch you if you're in a health care setting is also very important, not being afraid to speak up.

Similarly, handwashing is good for clinicians, but there are more things to be done. One is using antibiotics correctly and wisely. There's a concept of antibiotic stewardship that focuses on making sure that we use the right antibiotic for the right amount of time, and then we stop as soon as it's not necessary anymore, so that we don't give bacteria the opportunity to become resistant.

That stewardship approach is something that is rapidly becoming standard of care in most of our health care facilities, and it's something that we're very actively promoting. We want to make sure that even if we're fortunate enough to develop new drugs in the coming several years, we won't see those used up as quickly as we have seen every other antibiotic in the past.

GWEN IFILL: And the elderly and infants and people with compromised immune systems are the ones who are most likely to be affected?

DR. MICHAEL BELL: Well, so, that's true of many things, but in addition to those fragile, vulnerable people, we also have the patients that I just described, somebody who is in a traumatic car accident, somebody who is receiving care for cancer or some other operation.

Pretty much anybody in a health care setting is at risk. We're also seeing that, because antibiotics are used in the community, as well as in hospitals, some of these organisms can be also coming from the community. It's one of the reasons that having the health department as an active part of the collaboration is so valuable, because they can look across settings, not just in one hospital, but also into the community.

GWEN IFILL: Dr. Michael Bell, the deputy director of the CDC Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion, thank you very much.

DR. MICHAEL BELL: Thank you.

Recently in Health