It didn't take long for doctors in the 1940s and 1950s to realize that while the new "wonder drug," penicillin, had given them a powerful weapon in the battle against bacteria, there would be no surrender by organisms that had survived since the dawn of time. In this segment of "Antibiotics: The Broken Promise," our Katie Gibas says the survivors of the first assault on infection have comeback as so-called "superbugs" posing greater threats than their ancestors had in the pre-penicillin days.We do want to warn you that some of the video you're about to see may be too graphic for some viewers.
In the years following penicillin, a number of other antibiotics were developed, including methicillin, vancomycin, tetracycline, and erythromycin. But eventually bacteria became resistant to those too.
"Infections become harder to treat because there's no one drug you can go to which is going to be completely reliable for any particular condition," said Dr. Helen Jacoby, the St. Joseph’s Hospital Infectious Disease Medical Director.
It was a simple case of "too much of a good thing." Doctors and patients misused and overused the antibiotics and resistance dramatically increased.
"People who will see their doctor for a cold, which is usually do to a virus or bronchitis which is also usually due to a virus, and will want an antibiotic or the doctor will feel bad that there's nothing to advise other than time and rest and fluids, and then will them prescribe an antibiotic in a way to feel as if they're doing something," said Jacoby.
Some of the major causes of bacterial infections in the US are E. coli, Salmonella, Enterococcus and Staphylococcus. They’re all becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics.
"We had a friend, she was just in her early to mid-60s who died a couple months ago because she got an ecoli infection, and the antibiotics were not effective," said Kathie Arnold, an Organic Dairy Farmer.
Jacoby added, “E. coli is the most common cause of bladder infections, but now, there's a lot more resistance of E. coli to various antibiotics. So there isn't one antibiotic that I can tell you with 90 percent certainty that it will kill your bladder infection."
One of the most common "superbugs" is Methicillin Resistant Staphorrius, more commonly referred to as MRSA.
"It’s very scary because for one, you realize that they’re not even sure how to handle it because these cases are changing and evolving. And what they did with MRSA a year ago, might not be what they have to do currently. And just the fear of losing a limb and the mortality of it, said Jonathan Capra, a former MRSA patient.
Valerie McDowell, another former MRSA patient added, "One of my friends had a tattoo and ended up with MRSA on the tattoo, which ended up metastasizing to the brain, and he ended up with an abscess in the brain. They had to go in and do brain surgery to take the abscess out. Then he was on an IV antibiotic for a long period of time."
Valerie McDowell has had MRSA twice, and she’s allergic to one of the antibiotics that works against the infection.
"I don't know if I'm going to be more susceptible in the future. I've already had two bouts of it. Luckily they've just been skin infections and they've cleared with treatment. But the last treatment was a 28 day course of antibiotics. And he had to open up the abscess and drain it," said McDowell.
Laura Gray works in infection control at St. Joseph's hospital in Syracuse. Several years ago she fell victim to one of the very bugs she combats each day.
"At first, I was scared because I didn't know. I didn't have a lot of information about MRSA itself. And even being a nurse, you heard the term MRSA and you thought, 'Oh, my. This person has got a huge infection. Got to stay away from them,'" said Gary. "I guess you'll never really know why it happened. Have I had cultures since? I have and nothing has ever come back positive. Was it a one-time thing? Maybe. Will it ever come back again? Maybe."
The years have also shown that resistance is not the only challenge in a world demanding use of more and more antibiotics.
"The patient might have an allergic reaction to the antibiotic. And then there are other infections that are associated with antibiotic use. There's something called C. Difficile diarrhea, which is an infection that can develop in the bowel when people have been on antibiotics and causes a horrible diarrhea and requires another antibiotic to treat that," said Jacoby. “We have had people have to high bowel surgery for C. Diff and again, we've had people die from it.”
And one of the biggest challenges with C. Diff is that it’s difficult to kill. The patient must be treated with high doses and often long courses of antibiotics. But keeping the hospital clean is even harder because the C. Diff spores can only be killed with bleach or high doses of ultraviolet light for long periods.
"All of these organisms have been around a lot longer than we have. So anything we come up with to get rid of them, they're still a step ahead of us," said Laura Gray, a Registered Nurse at St. Joseph's Hospital.
That means, the key to treating these bugs is prevention. The easiest prevention method is washing your hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds. So just how long is that? Sing ‘Happy Birthday’ twice and you’re covered.
"I don't want anybody to live in a bubble but it's good to have some sort of fear. Your best defense is to wash your hands. People laugh at me. People think I'm kidding when I say that. They call me a germ-freak. But it's a very simple thing," said Gray.
But prevention alone isn’t enough. Resistance will just continue unless new antibiotics that work in completely different ways are developed to outsmart the bugs.