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Drug-Resistant ‘Superbugs’ Pose Health Crisis

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This report originally aired March 30. 2006.
 
We've come to rely on antibiotics as miracle drugs that can save us from infections, but the medical community says a growing health crisis threatens this most powerful medicine. Doctors say we've overused antibiotics to the point where they're failing us. Now we face a host of 'superbugs' that can't be killed by the usual medicines. Doctors are seeing one particular fast-growing bacteria in San Diego communities at an all-time high. Rebecca Tolin has more.

Scott Smith, Bryce Smith's Father: "Bring me the ball!"

Bryce Smith has lived through big ups and downs in his young life. Just weeks ago, his parents didn't know if their first child would survive. But the 17-month-old bounced back after a life-threatening infection.

Katie Smith, Bryce Smith's Mother: "I just look at him and sometimes I get all teary-eyed."

The Smiths worried when Bryce's first cold last Christmas left him listless, and gasping for air. Despite their doctor's reassurance everything was okay, the Smiths rushed Bryce to Children's Hospital on New Year's Eve. They were shocked to learn his tiny body was battling a fierce pneumonia.

Katie Smith: "He was rushed upstairs to ICU to get prepped and ready to go to surgery. I was just handed paperwork to basically sign my son's life over to the hospital. Here my son had been healthy up until his first little cold and now he is fighting for his life."

Scott Smith: "Almost like a TV script, they looked up and said, 'your son is sick, he is very sick.' At first I thought, okay a lot of people get pneumonia now. They take antibiotics, they go home, everything is going to be fine."

But over the agonizing hours, days and weeks that followed, the Smiths learned their son's bacterial infection was only getting worse. It was an aggressive bacteria called MRSA, or Methicilian Resistant Staphaureous, that can survive an onslaught of antibiotics.

Dr. Victor Nizet, Children's Health Center and Hospital Pediatrican: "It was a very dangerous infection. The staph was spreading through his body and needed aggressive treatment to be controlled."

Dr. Victor Nizet was part of the team treating Bryce smith. The MRSA damaged his lungs, eating a hole right through the flesh. A ventilator did the breathing for him. Meanwhile, doctors had to use near-lethal doses of the strongest antibiotics to stay one step ahead of the infection.

Scott Smith: "I pretty much cried like a baby. I just couldn't stop. I mean it's just the emotions. You just feel overwhelmed, you feel guilty, and we're actually sitting there not knowing our son is literally dying in front of us."

But miraculously after an eight-week battle, Bryce outlived the infection. Doctor Nizet says he was lucky.

Dr. Nizet: "We've heard reports of very severe pneumonias, very severe flesh-eating types of infection in which patients have had poor outcomes, even died, with these drug resistant staph."

Nizet says Staph is among the deadliest of all disease-causing organisms. And it's surprisingly common. One out of three people has Staph on their skin. When it gets inside the body and causes infection, antibiotics have traditionally knocked it down. But an overuse of antibiotics has allowed some bacteria to adapt, or become resistant.

Dr. Lisa Lowe, UCSD Medical Center Emergency Room Physician: "You might get treated with these antibiotics over and over for repeated viral infection and then you develop this resistance. Then when you get very sick at some later level, you can't be cured by the antibiotics that we would traditionally use and we kind of start to run out of options."

UCSD Medical center's Lisa Lowe says doctors around the county are seeing a sharp increase in MRSA. Just a decade ago, less than 10 percent of Staph infections were resistant to the most common antibiotics. Today, about half are untreatable by the same medications.

Dr. Lowe: "The main players in our problem with antibiotic resistance are either prescribing an antibiotic when it's not indicated, so people get too much exposure to too many antibiotics -- people taking other people's antibiotics is a huge issue. People say, oh I took my brother's leftover penicillin because I had a sore throat and thought it might be strep throat."

Lowe says antibiotics only help an infection but are often taken for viruses, which have similar symptoms. That can cause unwanted side effects, and render them useless when they're really needed. Lowe says patients need to follow their doctor's instructions. And doctors need to take cultures when they can and be more cautious about prescribing antibiotics. As it is, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says up to 50 percent of all antibiotic use is unnecessary.

Dr. James Dunford, UCSD Medical Center Emergency Room Physician: "So we're chasing after our own tails and we have to stop giving antibiotics unless they're really indicated."

Dr. James Dunford has worked in this ER for 26 years. He says some patients who used to go home with oral medication now have to be hospitalized with IV drugs. On just this day, David Stamper is the third patient he's seen with MRSA.

David Stamper, UCSD Medical Center Patient: "Every time you take a step, it's the most agonizing pain you can imagine."

Stamper was healthy until he got what seemed like a simple spider bite. A fast-growing skin infection didn't respond to the first round of antibiotics, or the second. Now, the MRSA is eating through his right leg.

Stamper: "They're talking about if it doesn't get any better, they're going to have to take that whole area out -- surgically remove that area, and it's got me kind of scared."

Dunford: "They come in with these progressively painful, red and oftentimes pussy infections that are actually abscesses that just literally burrow down into and drill into the skin in a way that staph infections never quite used to do."

Doctors say they have just a few antibiotics left to fight MRSA, and occasionally even those fail. But antibiotics aren't just used for humans. In fact, only about 30 percent of antibiotics are given to sick people. And the other 70 percent? The Union of Concerned Scientists says they're fed to livestock in industrialized farms. And that could be making antibiotics less effective for humans.

Dr. John Balbus, Environmental Defense Health Program Coordinator: "These antibiotics are used most of the time for reasons that aren't treating a sick animal, but are instead either trying to gain another couple of ounces on the same amount of food or keep those animals from being infected when they're raised in kind of unsanitary conditions."

Doctor John Balbus says this creates antibiotic resistant bacteria on animals, which is transferred to people through food, air and water. Environmental defense has asked the FDA to ban medically important antibiotics in animal feed, and a similar bill is pending in Congress. Balbus believes antibiotics need to be used judiciously to protect one of the medicine's greatest weapons.

Dr. Balbus: "We are in a world where we just kind of expect that if you get pneumonia, if you get an infection, the worst thing that would happen is you could be in the hospital and you'll have to get some kind of really strong antibiotic and then you'll be okay. But what we're looking at is a world where there are going to be some infections where we just don't have the drug to fight it off."

Scott Smith: "See pooh? "Poo-oo-ooh!"

No one understands that better than the Smiths. The Santee couple values the life-saving abilities of antibiotics more than ever. They believe new drugs need to be developed to save other lives.

Katie Smith: "Bryce is very lucky to be here, very lucky. The next round of people [are] not going to be, because it's becoming so resistant and if they don't start researching and trying to come up with new drugs to fight this bacteria, it's going to be a really bad situation."

Bryce Smith: "gah, gooh."

Scott Smith: "He just brings, you saw him, joy to everybody. He is a happy little boy. And to know what he had gone through. It's just heartbreaking to know what other people are going to be going through that."

Besides MRSA, , other drug-resistant bacteria are showing up in ear, sinus, and urinary tract infections. In fact San Diego County has one of the highest resistance rates in the country for the organism E. coli which causes urinary tract infections. It’s recommended doctors take cultures before treatment.

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