Hospitals

Wow of the Week: How are hospitals dealing with “nightmare bacteria”?

It’s pretty close to Halloween. But this week I overlooked the usual horror movies and encountered a particularly frightening program about the threat posed by drug resistant “nightmare bacteria.” It was the subject of a fascinating documentary by Frontline aired this week on PBS called “Hunting the Nightmare Bacteria,” but it can also be viewed […]

It’s pretty close to Halloween. But this week I overlooked the usual horror movies and encountered a particularly frightening program about the threat posed by drug resistant “nightmare bacteria.” It was the subject of a fascinating documentary by Frontline aired this week on PBS called “Hunting the Nightmare Bacteria,” but it can also be viewed on the program’s website.

“Nightmare bacteria” is a term that comes by way of the Centers for Disease Control Director Tom Frieden. He used it to refer to a family of bacteria called CRE that kill up to half of patients who get bloodstream infections from them. The CDC issued a report about CRE earlier this year.

Every year, 2 million people are infected with drug-resistant bacteria and 23,000 die from these infections, according to the CDC.

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The documentary profiled two individuals who survived life threatening encounters with various drug-resistant bacteria that they contracted outside and inside hospitals from Arizona to India. It also looked at how a patient inadvertently introduced a drug-resistant strain of Klebsiella pneumoniae at the National Institutes of Health’s Clinical Center, causing an outbreak. The patient who had the bacteria eventually got better, but despite numerous precautions, the bacteria spread and eventually killed or played a role in the death of 11 patients in 2011. Geneticists at the NIH used genomic sequencing to map out how the microbe spread and later produced a report on it.

The program also gathers insights from drug researchers, pharmaceutical directors and physicians. The source of this crisis — the overuse of antibiotics — was actually a concern voiced by the man who discovered penicillin, Sir Alexander Fleming.

David Hoffman, the reporter behind the Frontline story, is a Pulitzer-Prize winning author and was subsequently interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air about the drug-resistant bacteria issue.

Yet, one of the scariest things highlighted in the documentary is that big pharma companies such as Pfizer have significantly scaled back their research and development work on antibiotics to counter the bacteria that are resistant to the drugs currently available. That is partially due to the relative high cost of drug development. It’s also because they are not as financially rewarding since they are supposed to be used relatively infrequently as opposed to say, three times a day.