How Concerned Should We Be With the Continuing Deadly Outbreak of Antibiotic Resistant ‘Superbugs’ That Killed 58,000 Infants in India Last Year?

How we assess threats depends on where we live in the world. For example, a Pew Research Center report from last month tells us that if you live in Sub-Saharan Africa you see Aids and disease as our greatest threat. In the Middle East it’s religious and ethnic hatred, and in the US and Europe it’s inequality.

But our recent experience with Ebola may have changed that. This Wednesday the New York Times ran the story ‘Superbugs’ Kill India’s Babies and Pose an Overseas Threat. It was on the front page and two days later at 8:00 this morning it was still on the most viewed and most emailed lists, reaching as high as number 3 yesterday. That’s a first. Apart from Ebola, stories on infectious disease in the US and Canada are generally ignored.

But not the Times report, which says that India’s infants are born with bacterial infections that are resistant to most known antibiotics, and more than 58,000 died last year as a result. That if these “resistant infections keep growing … it would be a disaster for not only India but the entire world.”

Quoting health officials, the Times reports that the infections are in fact growing rapidly: “Five years ago, we almost never saw these kinds of infections. Now, close to 100 percent of the babies referred to us have multidrug resistant infections. It’s scary.” And these resistant infections have already begun to migrate elsewhere “… reaching just about every country in the world … including … the United States.”

So are Times readers right to keep this story front and center?

Let’s ask one of our foremost experts on infectious disease, Tom Frieden, MD, Director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. You may recall Dr. Frieden as the guy who, in the midst of the great American Ebola freakout, was telling the President, the Congress, the media, and the public, that “I have no doubt that we’ll stop this in its tracks in the U.S.” And as we know he was proven absolutely right.

But this past July in a talk to the National Press Club in Washington, DC – a talk that got zero publicity – Tom Frieden told us what we will not stop in its tracks in the US:

But the next pandemic is not likely to be MERS … But maybe the next thing that we are most at risk for is not the thing that we don’t know, but something that’s hiding in plain sight, something that could kill any of us, something that could undermine our ability to practice modern medicine, something that could devastate our economy and something that could sicken or kill millions … Antibiotic resistance…

I’m an infectious disease physician. I’ve treated patients for many infections and I’ve also treated patients for whom there are no antibiotics left. I felt like a time traveler going back to an era before antibiotics. We talk about the pre-antibiotic era and the antibiotic era. If we’re not careful we’ll soon be in a post-antibiotic era. And, in fact, for some patients and some pathogens, we’re already there.

And what does this post-antibiotic era look like? It looks like India, right now; that’s the compelling story in the Times that its readers, rightfully, aren’t letting go of. They seem to intuitively grasp, perhaps because of our recent Ebola experience, what Frieden says explicitly: “A disease outbreak anywhere is a disease risk everywhere.”

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