Where’s the War on Lethal Super-Bugs?
By Ralph Nader
What if two thousand U.S. soldiers were losing their lives every week in Afghanistan? Would the peddlers of the electoral politics of trivia, distraction and avoidance take notice? Of course.
Every week, two thousand Americans, or about 100,000 men, women and children a year, die from mostly preventable hospital-borne infections in the United States. The toll may even be higher (Center for Disease Control updates its figures soon).
To put this deadly disaster in perspective, hospital-induced infections kill more Americans than the combined fatalities from motor vehicle collisions, AIDs, fire and homicides combined. Additional millions more survive infections. The pain and costs are enormous.
Why the silence about this silent violence? Every President, including Barack Obama, says over and over again that the safety of the American people is his top priority. They spend trillions of dollars to guard against and confront stateless terrorists in blowback ways that seem to produce more terrorism in more countries. Yet the Washington lawmakers can’t seem to adequately respond to the little publicized yet dire warnings and casualty figures published by our leading scientists and public health officials about the big-time terrorists called lethal bacteria.
This year, our government is not even devoting the dollar equivalent of two unnecessary F-22 fighter planes to the fight against what the Washington Post calls “a global epidemic of hospital-acquired bugs that quickly grow resistant to the toughest drugs.”
The story behind this colossal callousness toward innocent, trusting people taken to hospitals for care and healing starts with the drug company executives who do not see much profit from developing new antibiotics. After all, selling drugs for depression, high blood pressure and “life-style drugs” make huge profits. Only vaccines are lower on the profit totem pole than antibiotics. Remember the ever-changing superbugs keep challenging the heavily government subsidized and tax-credited drug companies to invest in antibiotics research and development.
When the drug companies balked at spending money to discover anti-malaria drugs for our soldiers during the Vietnam War, the Pentagon opened its own research section at Walter Reed Army Hospital and developed several effective medicines itself.
David Shlaes, a specialist in drug development, told the Post that only four of the twelve largest global drug companies are researching new antibiotics. The last company to drop out was Pfizer, closing its Connecticut antibiotics research center, laying off 1200 employees and moving operations to China. Some corporate patriotism!
All Congress has recently done is give drug companies five more years of patent monopolies for inventing new antibiotics. This is the case even though just about every person can tell you of neighbors, friends or relatives who have caught serious infections in a hospital.
Last year, but unethically not disclosed until last month, the nation’s premier clinical research hospital at the National Institutes of Health, lost six patients to a super-bug resistant to all known antibiotics. Moreover, resistant strains of tuberculosis are spreading in Eastern Europe and Asia, according to a new study published in The Lancet.
Beyond the slowdown in developing new antibiotics – 13 new categories of antibiotics were discovered between 1945 and 1968 and just two new ones since then – is the massive over promotion of antibiotics through physicians who should know better. In addition, the daily feed of domesticated chickens, turkeys, cows and pigs is laced with antibiotics for disease prevention and growth-enhancement. This reduces animals’ natural immunity and leads to mutating resistant bacteria that can move into the human consumers of meat products.
As the New York Times reported “eighty percent of the antibiotics sold in the United States” go into these animals. Their producers “are not required to report how they use the drugs – which ones, on what types of animal, and in what quantities.”
According to The Times, a small sampling by federal agencies found a “ferocious germ resistant to many types of antibiotics increasing on chicken breasts.” The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says it is moving to require animal producers to get prescriptions from veterinarians for certain antibiotics that now they get off the shelf.
Congress has not been helpful, cutting its own deals with agribusiness and drug lobbies in return for campaign cash and other niceties at the expense of public health. Show most members of Congress a few described human terrorists in the mountains of Afghanistan and they give open checkbooks to the Pentagon and the C.I.A. Such imbalanced priorities bespeak of unstable mental health on Capitol Hill, especially since they and their families eat the same meat products and go to hospitals.
“This is a real crisis,” Henry Masur, chief of NIH’s Critical Care Medicine Department, told The Post. People have to start asking “where are the Doctors?” who routinely cater to patients with colds by prescribing unnecessary antibiotics without even knowing whether the affliction is viral or bacterial. “The patients demand this; they think they are being neglected without a prescription,” is the frequent frustrated response by physicians. Answer: “who is the doctor here?”
Some hospitals are cutting their hospital-induced infection rates by the disciplined checklists, getting tough on physicians and nurses washing their hands and general sanitation crackdowns. This more rigorous application of medicine’s famous injunction “do no harm” must be applied faster, deeper and more regularly in all hospitals and clinics.
By the way, where are the cartoonists? Picturing these super-bugs in their grisly roles while our leaders look the other way is a graphic approach to get people’s serious attention. Start drawing for life, you guys!
For more information see: CDC Healthcare-associated Infections (HAI)