Skip to main content

Why 'nightmare bacteria' on the rise

By Aaron E. Carroll, Special to CNN
updated 11:57 PM EST, Thu March 7, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Aaron Carroll says rise in drug-resistant bacteria CRE should concern us all
  • He says bacterial strains -- like MSRA a few years ago -- evolve to resist antibiotics
  • Concern is over spread in hospitals now, but bug could get out into community, he says
  • Carroll: Misuse of antibiotics gives bacteria chance to evolve -- a real public health danger

Editor's note: Dr. Aaron E. Carroll is an associate professor of pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine and the director of the university's Center for Health Policy and Professionalism Research. He blogs about health policy at The Incidental Economist and tweets at @aaronecarroll.

(CNN) -- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has sent out a warning to hospitals about a new antibiotic-resistant bacteria, carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae, or CRE. While this strain of bacteria is not new, it has become more common in the last 10 years or so and has now become prevalent enough to warrant a higher level of concern.

It's worth backing up for a second to discuss what all of this means. We use antibiotics to treat bacterial infections. When we first started developing antibiotics, such infections were easier to cure. But over time, the bacteria evolved. They developed the ability to fight the antibiotics that we use. They pass on this ability to resist treatment to bacteria that follow. Over time, we are often forced to develop new antibiotics to beat infections that were previously treated easily.

News: CDC: 'Nightmare bacteria' spreading

Aaron E. Carroll
Aaron E. Carroll

This is what has happened here with CRE. Over time, these bacteria have become harder and harder to treat. The old antibiotics don't work as well. In this case, CRE infections kill about half of patients who have bloodstream infections. This is more than twice as many people who die from similar infections with antibiotic-susceptible strains.

Right now, CRE only are of concern to certain susceptible patients in the hospital. It's not common in the community, and most of the warnings are directed at hospitals, imploring them to take precautions to isolate patients and prevent spread in the inpatient setting.

The nightmare scenario, though, is that this bacteria will get out into the community.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



This isn't fear-mongering. Years ago, Staphylococcus aureus infections were also relatively easy to treat. Over time, though, a strain of bacteria, known as Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, became a problem in hospitals. The CDC issued warnings to hospitals to take precautions to prevent its spread. Over time, though, it got out into the community.

A 2008 study of children who came into an emergency department with skin abscesses, or infections, found that about 75% of them were caused by MRSA. Luckily, we still have medications, such as trimethoprim/sulfamethoxazole, to treat these infections. When that fails, though, things will become even more concerning.

Put another way, when I was training, we would have almost never considered MRSA as the cause of a skin infection. These days, though, we pretty much assume it's the cause, and treat with stronger drugs.

Most people believe that the injudicious use of antibiotics is to blame for these developments. Every time we use antibiotics, we give bacteria a chance to evolve. We kill off those susceptible to the drugs and leave those that have developed resistance. Each time we use antibiotics unnecessarily, say to treat a virus, we make the problem worse. Each time we use them improperly, or for too short a period of time, we do the same. These days, we're putting them in everything, from soap, to lotion, to the food that animals eat.

This is a real public health issue. Creating more resistant strains is a serious long-term problem. The new warning is panicking a lot of people, but for the wrong reasons. You're very, very unlikely to get a CRE infection anytime in the near future. It's important that hospitals work to prevent that problem from getting worse, but almost everyone reading about it this week will be unaffected by it.

It's much, much more likely, though, that these same people will ask for antibiotics when they get a cold. That's the kind of thing that will lead to future problems. That's the kind of thing we need to stop now.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Aaron E. Carroll.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
updated 9:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
updated 7:27 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
updated 4:15 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT