Infections: The New Cancer?

Every now and again the media gets all hysterical about drug resistant bacteria. If you follow the news, you know that we are going through another bout of hysteria right now due to a Brooklyn kid getting killed by a drug resistant staph infection.

Hysteria is not called for. It too hard to sustain and this does not look like the end of the world as we know it yet. But the problem is getting worse. This quote is from the Houston Chronicles…

Based on data from 2005, the agency estimated that about 94,400 patients nationwide suffer an invasive MRSA infection each year. And in the vast majority of cases, the infections originated in health care settings.

“This is an alarming number of infections and a very significant number of deaths,” said Dr. Monina Klevens, a medical epidemiologist with the CDC. “This is really a call to action for health care facilities to do a better job at preventing MRSA.”

The once-rare, drug-resistant germ causes more than half of all skin infections treated in U.S. emergency rooms, the CDC reported last year. But until now, there was no solid data on the number of cases nationwide to serve as a benchmark.

The federal study tracked only the most serious type of MRSA, the potentially fatal infection that can cause pneumonia, bloodstream infections and surgical wound infections. Staph infections on skin, which look like pimples or boils, are more common and easier to treat. Both spread by person-to-person contact and are resistant to certain antibiotics.

The study referenced in the article also estimate that 18,700 had died from drug resistant infections. If this estimate is accurate, then more people are dying because of drug resistant bacteria than are dying because of aids. And most of the people who are dying because of the drug resistant bacteria are getting these infections simply by being hospitalized. But there is real danger that locker rooms, prisons, and public rest rooms could start spreading these infections.

The steady growth of drug resistant bacteria has got people thinking about what the future of infection fighting is going to look like. Derek Lowe suggests that it may look a lot like the fight against cancer now. As he puts it…

It struck me the other day that antiinfectives, as a drug research field, might be moving toward a similar spot to oncology. In both cases, you have a problem with rapidly multiplying cells, giving you a serious medical outcome – often in cancer, and increasingly with infections. The average tumor is a lot more worrisome than the average infection, of course, but that’s something we can only say with confidence in the industrialized world, and we’ve only been able to say it for the last sixty or seventy years. As cancer gradually becomes more manageable and infections gradually become less so, the two might eventually meet – or even switch places, which would be bad news indeed. (In some genetically bottlenecked species, in fact, the two problems can overlap, which is fortunately extremely unlikely in humans).

There are, of course, a lot of differences between the two fields, not least of which is that you’re fighting human cells in one case and prokaryotes (or worse, viruses) in the other. But many of those differences actually come out making infectious diseases look worse. The transmissibility of bacteria and viruses make them serious contenders for causing havoc, as they have innumerable times in human history, and they can grow more quickly in vivo than any cancer.

2 thoughts on “Infections: The New Cancer?

  1. I sure hope the “more people are dying because of drug resistant bacteria then are dying because of aids [sic]” was not in reference to the 94,400 figure, of patients who suffer an infection. Indeed, if one goes through the considerable trouble of looking up your source (and I am not merely being snarky, as the link returned garbage in my Opera browser), then one finds the actual number of deaths: 18,700.

    Please be careful that your second-reference has a good first-reference to depend upon so as not to contribut to the hysteria.

  2. I should have been clearer that I was giving more information from the study. Not expanding upon what I quoted from.

    If you had a browser that could follow my link you would have read at the very start of the article…

    About 18,700 people die in this country each year from drug-resistant staph infections, according to a federal study released Tuesday — more deaths than the United States sees from AIDS annually.

    If you want to fix that be my guest. I don’t have time tonight as I have to wash dishes. I will try to get to it tomorrow if you don’t.

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