Tuesday, October 22, 2013

PBS Frontline: "Hunting the Nightmare Bacteria", about antibiotic resistant suberbugs

PBS Frontline on Tuesday night aired a scary documentary “Hunting the Nightmare Bacteria”, with case histories of patients in Arizona, India, and finally at the National Institutes of Health, where the epidemic mysteriously jumped among patients for six months, leading to six deaths.  Extreme infection control procedures were needed.

The gram-negative bacteria is called “KPC” and has developed antibiotic resistance by integrating other genes (like “NDM1”) it finds in the environment.  One patient undergoes leg amputation after inability to treat the infection, and another had a double lung transplant. 
The more antibiotics are used, the more bacteria can become resistance. The bacteria are "promiscuous" in that the presence of a gram-negative bacterium with NDM1 in a culture can transmit the gene to all bacteria cells it comes into contact with.  It's rather like the "gray goo" problem. 

I can remember having some strep throats in middle age, but they have stopped.  That’s probably because I’ve developed my own immunity.

I had a severe jaw infection in 2004, leading to a dental cyst.  It was treated with clindamycin.  It did not return as acute infection, even though the cyst remained until recent surgery for implants.  I suspect I was lucky enough that my own immune system became able to resist the specific bacteria, which might have otherwise turned into a superbug.

Drug companies find they don’t have a financial incentive to develop new antibiotics, which may become obsolete.  The closure of a Connecticut plant for Pfizer hurt the opportunity to find a cure for gram-negative infections.

The main link for the episode is here

The CDC has called this bug a nightmare. 

This is a public health issue where individual actions can create a problem that is more than the sum of its parts.
The series will continue with a study of antibiotics in agriculture, next spring. 

Update: May 6, 2014

PBS re-aired this episode.  The story of the young man in India is especially disturbing to me, since I have seen a film about volunteer work with orphans in India ("Blood Brothers" with Rocky Braat, movies Feb. 24, 2014 and the video "Tomorrow" by Timo Descamps, drama blog March 27, 2014).

The young woman's case had started with hip pain and rash, which spread to her lungs.

The documentary warms that we are approaching a "post-antibiotic" era. 

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