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The End of Antibiotics. Can We Come Back from the Brink?

Tom Frieden CDCAntibiotic resistance — bacteria outsmarting the drugs designed to kill them — is already here, threatening to return us to the time when simple infections were often fatal. How long before we have no effective antibiotics left?

It’s painfully easy for me to imagine life in a post-antibiotic era. I trained as an internist and infectious disease physician before there was effective treatment for HIV, and I later cared for patients with tuberculosis resistant to virtually all antibiotics.

We improvised, hoped, and, all too often, were only able to help patients die more comfortably.

To quote Dr. Margaret Chan, Director General of the World Health Organization: “A post-antibiotic era means, in effect, an end to modern medicine as we know it.”

We’d have to rethink our approach to many advances in medical treatment such as joint replacements, organ transplants and cancer therapy, as well as improvements in treating chronic diseases such as diabetes, asthma, rheumatoid arthritis and other immunological disorders.

Treatments for these can increase the risk of infections, and we may no longer be able to assume that we will have effective antibiotics for these infections.

Last September, CDC published our first report on the current antibiotic resistance threat to the United States.

The report conservatively estimates that each year, at least 2 million Americans become infected with bacteria resistant to antibiotics, and at least 23,000 die.  Another 14,000 Americans die each year with the complications of C. difficile, a bacterial infection most often made possible by use of antibiotics. WHO has just issued their report  on the global impact of this health threat.

It’s a big problem, and one that’s getting worse. But it’s not too late. We can delay, and even in some cases reverse the spread of antibiotic resistance.

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CDC: Together We Can Provide Safer Patient Care

There are many stories of patients who suffer when we make errors prescribing antibiotics. 75-year-old Bob Totsch from Coshocton, Ohio, went in for heart bypass surgery with every expectation of a good outcome.

Instead, he developed a surgical site infection caused by MRSA. Given a variety of antibiotics, he developed the deadly diarrheal infection C. difficile, went into septic shock, and died.

A tragic story and, probably, a preventable death.

Today, we’ve published a report about the need to improve antibiotic prescribing in hospitals.  Antibiotic resistance is one of the most urgent health threats facing us today. Antibiotics can save lives.

But when they’re not prescribed correctly, they put patients at risk for preventable allergic reactions, resistant infections, and deadly diarrhea. And they become less likely to work in the future.

About half of hospital patients receive an antibiotic during the course of their stay. But doctors in some hospitals prescribe three times more antibiotics than doctors in other hospitals, even though patients were receiving care in similar areas of each hospital.

Among 26 medical-surgical wards, there were 3-fold differences in prescribing rates of all antibiotics, including antibiotics that place patients at high risk for developing Clostridium difficile infections (CDI).

CDC has estimated that there are about 250,000 CDIs in hospitalized patients each year resulting in 14,000 deaths.

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Can a Portable Hand Sanitizer System Reduce Hospital-Acquired Infections in America’s Hospitals?


Ignaz Semmelweiss was laughed out of his Viennese hospital when he suggested that physicians should wash their hands in between conducting an autopsy and delivering a baby.

150 years later, we know just how right he was, but hand sanitation compliance rates at hospitals still hover in the 30% to 50% range. This makes it easy for hospital-acquired infections (HAIs) such as MRSA and VRE to run rampant, a (literally) dirty, not-so-little, and not-so-secret reality for American patients.

A Healthbox-backed startup is trying to change that. SwipeSense, founded in 2012 by Northwestern University graduates Mert Iseri and Yuri Malina, is a system designed to improve sanitation practices in hospitals using portable hand sanitizers and wirelessly-collected data on their use.

The organization wants to help stem the tide of avoidable HAIs. Each year, about 100,000 Americans die from infections they contract during their time in the hospital – more than the number of Americans killed by guns, motor vehicles, and leukemiacombined. In addition to the direct human toll, HAIs cause patient length of stays to increase by 8.0 days in ICUs and 7.4 to 9.4days in acute care wards, taking up expensive capacity and preventing others from accessing needed hospital beds. They’re also expensive, causing an estimated $4.5 to $5.7 billion in excess costs.

Iseri and Malina were inspired to create SwipeSense by a project they did for Design for America, a student group created to catalyze social change using human-centered design (also founded by Iseri and Malina). It took them to Northwestern Memorial University Hospital in their college town of Evanston, Illinois, where they identified two salient issues with hand sanitation: convenience and compliance.

“It’s obvious it’s not the fault of the nurse or physician…it’s something wrong with the system,” Malina told me in an interview. Even though alcohol foam and soap dispensers are ubiquitous in American hospitals, they often aren’t at the immediate point of care: “medical staff need to sanitize four or five times per patient encounter,” Malina said, making proper sanitation an arduous, time-consuming, and unrealistic task. “Our philosophy at SwipeSense is that the right thing to do should be the easiest thing to do… We want to make something that people love.”

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