Half a Million Americans Contract Infection Linked to Antibiotics

About a half million Americans contracted a severe infection related to the use of antibiotics in 2011, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine. That is up to twice as many infections as the CDC had previously estimated for a pathogen that was also responsible for 29,300 deaths that year.

The Clostridium difficile bacteria causes debilitating diarrhea and can result in kidney failure as well as a potentially fatal form of inflammation called sepsis. It has become the most common pathogen in hospitals and other health care facilities, costing Americans at least $4.8 billion in additional medical expenses annually. Women and seniors were more likely to become infected, and roughly a quarter of infections occurred in hospitals. The CDC estimates that the C. difficile infection rate has declined by 10 percent since 2011.

The improper use of antibiotics to treat viruses and other non-bacterial ailments is a primary reason for the high rate of infection, said Michael Bell of the National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases. Antibiotics kill bacteria naturally found in the gut, which can provide an opportunity for C. difficile to exploit the lack of competitors and infect the bowels of the person exposed. By encouraging appropriate use of antibiotics, England was able to reduce the rate of C. difficile infection by 60 percent over three years.

A highly contagious new strain of the bacteria has appeared in the last 15 years. Of the cases included in the CDC study, about 30 percent involved this more severe bug. While there are antibiotics to treat C. difficile, patients frequently suffer repeated infections as a result of being unable to restore their intestinal bacteria to a normal level. A number of pharmaceutical companies are exploring new drugs to combat C. difficile, including Merck and Actelion Ltd. Sanofi is also working on a vaccine to prevent the infection.

In order to avoid infection, consumers should exercise caution in their use of antibiotics. If you become ill, take stock of all your symptoms so that your doctor can better determine the appropriate course of treatment. Most illnesses are caused by viral infections, so taking antibiotics is usually not a suitable treatment. Only take antibiotics if they are prescribed to you by a doctor and do so only to treat the condition for which the antibiotics were intended. If you are prescribed antibiotics, ensure that you complete your entire treatment as prescribed by your doctor. Failure to do so could result in more severe infection by strengthening bacteria rather than killing them.

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Kyle Burgess is the co-founder of two social enterprises and has worked in strategy, communications, and program management for a decade. Kyle received her Master’s degree in International Relations & Economics from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and her Bachelor's degree in Political Science from American University.

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