Last spring, Arjun Srinivasan, an associate director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, delivered a presentation to state health officials with some alarming information. Before the year 2000, he said, it was rare to find cases of bacteria resistant to carbapenems, a class of powerful, last-resort antibiotics. But by February 2013 they had been seen in almost every state. Srinivasan also briefed Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC. On March 5, Frieden issued a public warning about "nightmare" bacteria, a family of germs known as CREs. They can kill up to half the patients who get bloodstream infections from them, resist most or all antibiotics and spread resistance to other strains.
Last month, Frieden released a report estimating that at least 2 million Americans get infections each year that are resistant to antibiotics and that at least 23,000 people die as a result. Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization, warned last year: "A post-antibiotic era means, in effect, an end to modern medicine as we know it. Things as common as strep throat or a child's scratched knee could once again kill."
The words of Frieden and Chan ought to make our hair stand on end. But my reporting for the documentary "Hunting the Nightmare Bacteria," which is to air Tuesday on PBS's "Frontline," suggests that past warnings about antimicrobial resistance were largely discarded. This is not a threat that causes people to jump out of their chairs. It always seems to be someone else's problem, some other time.
We ought to snap out of our long complacency.
Alexander Fleming warned of resistance to penicillin in his 1945 Nobel Prize lecture. But after World War II, the "wonder drugs" seemed inexhaustible and their powers immensely potent, opening doors to new horizons in medicine. Infection no longer meant certain death. What could go wrong?