Biotech and the New Era of Germ Warfare

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Biotech and the New Era of Germ Warfare

Every year, a deadly illness kills 100,000 Americans, more than the combined deaths from AIDS and breast cancer, and it costs the nation $30 billion. It is a cruel irony that the victims typically are stricken in hospitals where they are surrounded by doctors and millions of dollars in medical technology.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Preventionreports that of the 35 million people who are admitted to hospitals each year, 2 million patients come down with infections while they are there. And, two out of every three of those cases will involve infections that are immune to at least one drug.

Harvard Medical School infectious disease expert Robert Moellering was recently quoted on Forbes.com1as saying, “More and more bugs are becoming dangerously close to untreatable.”

Three reasons explain why super-bugs are proliferating:

Doctors have over-prescribed antibiotics for decades, even giving them to patients with non-bacterial infections like colds. This shortsighted practice has encouraged bacteria to mutate into strains that resist all of the current drugs. Today, standard antibiotics can successfully treat just 40 percent of hospital staph infections. That’s down from 98 percent 30 years ago.

The pipeline for new antibiotic drugs is nearly empty. Between 1982 and 1992, pharmaceutical companies won approval for 30 new antibiotics. Since 2000, the number has dwindled to seven. The reason is that antibiotics are just not as profitable a business as blockbuster drugs that control cholesterol or heartburn.

Hospitals have become lax in preventing the spread of infections. Because of the heavy use of antibiotics that destroy less-dangerous strains of bacteria, hospitals are prone to drug-resistant bacteria, or “super-bugs.” The problem becomes worse when poor hygiene is practiced by doctors and nurses who fail to wash their hands after they treat patients, and by maintenance personnel who fail to wash restroom faucets and doorknobs.

It all adds up to a perfect environment for breeding super-bugs. The most worrisome of these is called community-acquired methicillin-resistant Staphylo-coccus aureus, or MRSA. Unlike other dangerous staph infections, MRSA isn’t confined to hospital wards. It has been spreading across the country, transmitted from person to person on playground swings, on locker room towels, on computer keyboards, or on airplane tray-tables.

What makes MRSA more than just a regular staph infection is that it isn’t stopped by normal antibiotics, such as amoxicillin or cephalexin...

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