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Rewriting Life

A Woman in Nevada Died from an Unstoppable Superbug

Her death is a reminder that antibiotic-resistant bacteria are getting worse, even as they garner little attention.

A strain of bacteria resistant to 26 different antibiotics killed a woman in Nevada, a stark warning that humanity continues to lose ground in the fight against antibiotic resistance.

The woman, who was in her 70s and appears to have acquired the infection in India after she broke her leg, died in September, but a report on her case was just published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

India is known to have more antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the environment than the U.S., in part because poor sanitation and water quality leads people to take hundreds of millions of courses of antibiotics each year for diarrhea. This gives the bugs ample opportunity to develop defenses against the drugs.

But the threat is global. A report issued last year by the U.K. government argued that if measures aren’t taken to stem the rising tide of antibiotic resistance, 10 million people a year could be dying from superbugs by 2050—more than currently die from cancer.

Many doctors say the crisis is already under way. The director of the CDC, Tom Frieden, has called the broad class of superbugs known as CRE (for carbapenem-resistant enterobacteriaceae) “nightmare bacteria.” The bacteria that killed the woman in Nevada was a kind of CRE known as Klebsiella pneumoniae.

STAT spoke with James Johnson, a doctor at the University of Minnesota who studies infectious disease. He offered an even more dire appraisal of the situation. “People have asked me many times, How scared should we be? … How close are we to the edge of the cliff? And I tell them: We’re already falling off the cliff,” he said.

One of the main reasons for this is that developing new antibiotics is not a good way for drug companies to make money. The U.K. government’s report addressed that issue, suggesting that it would be well worth it to spend public funds on paying firms to come up with new compounds to fight superbugs—but the plan has yet to be implemented.

(Read more: STAT, “It’s an Evolutionary Arms Race, and the Superbugs Are Winning”)

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