The fight against superbugs becomes a national priority

The fight against superbugs becomes a national priority

BOSTON — They're bacteria resistant to some of the strongest antibiotics available and they're evolving faster than scientists can come up with the cure.

They have nicknames like "phantom menace" and "nightmare bacteria" and they've made their way to American soil.

“That's the thing that we in infectious disease do have nightmares about because these bacteria become very, very difficult and even impossible to treat with antibiotics" said Dr, Larry Madoff, director of the division of Immunization and Epidemiology at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

Content Continues Below

They're called superbugs and Madoff says they are a high priority here in Massachusetts.

"We are seeing them, we're keeping a close eye on them, and we're doing the best we can to control them" he said.

Madoff said you may have contracted one of these superbugs over your lifetime, before they were super.  You knew some of them as strep, E.coli, or salmonella. Madoff said they've evolved because of the overuse of antibiotics like penicillin.

Identifying the problem

"We had no idea what it was” said Larry McKissick. "My temperature started going through the roof, I had a temperature of 104."

McKissick told FOX25 he got bacterial resistant staph infection commonly known as the superbug MRSA.  He said the first infection came from a scrape eight years ago.  He got a second one two years later after an operation.

Each time a boil appeared randomly on his body. The first time on his hip, the second time on his neck. Each time they needed to be cut out.

"The neck was probably the most painful. They basically put a hole in your skin about an inch deep" said McKissick

Health affects with superbug strains can range from serious to deadly. The Center for Disease Control said MRSA’s are responsible for more than eleven thousand deaths a year.

Clostridium difficile or CDIFF is another particularly deadly strain. According to 2015 study by the CDC, approximately 29,000 patients have died within 30 days of diagnosis.

A bacterial strain of e-coli recently surfaced in Connecticut that is resistant to the antibiotic Coliston, which Madoff says is our last line of defense against superbugs.

Finding a solution

The White House has made combating superbugs a national priority and a Boston group is helping finance the science behind it.

"Another week doesn't go by in which you haven't heard about some new infection popping up and threatening Americans" said Kevin Outterson, executive director of CARB-X , an organization that's helping scientists develop the next line of defense. 

CARB-X is tasked with distributing a quarter billion dollars of federal research money to move cutting edge antibiotics to the human testing phase. He tells us they hope to have twenty new antibiotics developed and available for human clinical trials in five years.

"If we want to be safe from bacterial threats we need to invest so that the companies will have the products available at the moment we need them" said Outterson.

Dr. Madoff took FOX25 on a tour of the microbiology laboratory inside the State Lab where they test bacterial specimens from across the state.  He says DPH is working with local hospitals and medical facilities to develop new strategies to reduce the transmission of bacterial infections.

"We're not going to develop new antibiotics as the sole means of getting out of this problem" said Madoff.

That includes sanitizing exam rooms and more protective clothing for staff.  He says doctors and patients also need to stop using antibiotics as a first line of defense if we're going to stop the bacteria from evolving any further.

"There's a saying... it's a battle between our wits and their genes... and they can evolve very quickly" said Madoff.

He says the simple task of washing your hands is the single most important thing anyone can do prevent the spread of bacteria.