UN Leaders Discuss Dwindling Options for Antibiotic-Resistant Diseases

PHOTO: A nurse washes his hands in this undated file photo.Getty Images
A nurse washes his hands in this undated file photo.

Antibiotic-resistant organisms have been a concern among health experts for decades, with fewer antibiotics being developed by major pharmaceutical companies and the effectiveness of available drugs diminishing.

Today, global health experts are sounding the alarm about antibiotic-resistant drugs in a meeting at the United Nations. The meeting to discuss antibiotic-resistant diseases is just the fourth time the U.N. has brought together heads of state to discuss a health issue.

"The misuse of antimicrobials, including their underuse and overuse, is causing these fragile medicines to fail," World Health Organization Director Dr. Margaret Chan said today in her opening remarks. "The emergence of bacterial resistance is outpacing the world’s capacity for antibiotic discovery. ... With few replacement products in the pipeline, the world is heading towards a post-antibiotic era in which common infections, especially those caused by gram-negative bacteria, will once again kill."

To bring attention to the state of antibiotic-resistant diseases in the U.S., researchers from multiple institutions, including the National Institutes of Health, published a review of medical literature in the Journal for the American Medical Association on Monday. The researchers looked at databases, reports and previous studies that focused on antibiotic-resistant diseases. They reported three diseases that are increasingly of concern to health officials for becoming more antibiotic-resistant, including Clostridium difficile, gonorrhea and MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus).

The rise of antibiotic-resistant diseases in combination with decreased production of new antibiotics has many health experts concerned that dangerous infections will become more and more common.

"We’re hanging on to a cliff with our fingers and our fingers are falling off one by one," Dr. Frank Esper, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital who was not involved with the study, told ABC News today. "For some germs, there is nothing, and it’s not uncommon for us to find ourselves in a situation where we’re looking at a germ that’s extremely resistant [to current antibiotics]."

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PHOTO: Antibiotic Development Graphic

In the JAMA report, the researchers highlighted that there were 16 antibiotics approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration between 1983 and 1987, while, in comparison, there were just two approved between 2008 and 2009. Five antimicrobials (which target microbes including bacteria) have been approved since the end of 2012 through today.

Here's a look at some of the diseases and pathogens that most concern researchers in the U.S. today:

C. difficile

The bacteria Clostrium difficile is naturally found in the gastrointestinal tract but the bacteria has become resistant to multiple forms of antibiotics. As a result, if a person takes antibiotics, the formerly healthy amount of C. difficile bacteria can multiply, colonizing larger areas of the intestine and causing infection.

The rate of infections caused by C. difficile peaked in 2011, with nearly 147 infections per 100,000 people. The infection rate nearly doubled in just 10 years from 2001 to 2010, according to the JAMA report.

The report authors found that current antimicrobials can often successfully treat the condition, but that it reoccurs in 20 percent of patients. When these drugs fail, there are few options for patients besides surgery. Health experts are now turning to fecal matter transplants to treat severe forms of disease, according to the JAMA report. Studies of these transplants have found they are successful 81 to 94 percent of the time.

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PHOTO: Annual Cases Graphics

Gonorrhea

This common sexually transmitted infection is caused by the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae, which has consistently become more resistant to available antibiotics in recent decades, according to the JAMA report.

The disease is rarely fatal but infects 300,000 people every year in the U.S. according to the CDC. Symptoms of untreated gonorrhea include infertility, ectopic pregnancies and long-term pelvic or abdominal pain.

In the U.S., there is currently just one antibiotic treatment recommended by the CDC to treat gonorrhea. In 2006, there were five recommended antibiotic treatments, four of which have mostly been made obsolete by the infection becoming resistant to the treatments.

MRSA

Publicized infections of MRSA helped bring attention to the rise of drug-resistant "superbugs" in the early 2000s, and the infection continues to be a problem today.

The disease is the second most common infection acquired in a hospital or similar health care setting and it leads to 11,285 deaths every year, according to the JAMA report. The naturally occurring bacteria can cause a dangerous staph infection if it enters a wound or exposed area. In severe cases, the bacteria can cause painful and dangerous infections in the bones, joints, bloodstream, heart valves and lungs, according to the Mayo Clinic.