Since penicillin was discovered 90 years ago, almost every bacteria is becoming resistant to the antibiotic designed to treat it. So-called superbugs are a growing threat: germs so strong, they’re immune to most or all antibiotics known to man. Just last May, Army researchers were alarmed to discover a new breed of superbug brought into the U.S. from overseas. Today, we look at the risks of superbugs and what the government is and isn’t doing about it.
Debbie Smoody: My mom was like this full of life person. She volunteered at the senior center every day. She was very independent.
Debbie Smoody took her mom Elsie to a Pennsylvania hospital last year for a simple outpatient procedure.
Debbie Smoody: This picture right here was the day after the procedure.
The procedure didn’t identify any medical issues but afterward, Elsie went downhill fast. It turns out she’d been infected by the hospital equipment, according to her doctor.
Debbie Smoody: He said that she contracted this bacteria. It was probably from the scope that was not properly cleaned. He also told me that the bacteria that she had was resistant to just about any kind of antibiotic there was and the chance of her surviving was pretty slim.
Sharyl Attkisson: That’s pretty shocking?
Debbie Smoody: It was pretty shocking. She’s like, “I’m dying, do I have cancer?” And I said, “You don’t have cancer, you have this bacteria. We don’t know,” I said, “It’s not good”. And I told her, “You know, there’s not antibiotics that really can get you better, but they’re going to try”.
Nothing worked. In a matter of weeks, Elsie was gone.
Debbie Smoody: That picture right there is probably the day that she passed away or the day before that she passed away.
Sharyl Attkisson: What is it that you think people should be concerned about?
Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA): Superbugs, which are antibiotic resistant bacteria, are the greatest infection threat in our country right now.
Congressman Tim Murphy heads a Congressional subcommittee that’s looking into the emerging superbug threat.
Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA): Far more people die of infections that can’t be treated than people die of AIDS. The other thing about this is that it’s getting worse. We don’t have cures for this and people better start paying attention.
There are many ways bacteria are becoming immune to the effects of modern medicine. Doctors may prescribe antibiotics too often. Patients may not finish their entire prescription, leaving behind stronger, resistant bugs. Heavy antibiotic use in animals can lead to superbugs in meat and poultry, say critics, which can spread antibiotic immunity to other bacteria in people.
Critics say a CDC awareness campaign that spent millions of tax dollars to discourage antibiotic overuse has done little to help.
CDC Director Tom Frieden: Antibiotic resistance is one of the most serious health threats we face today.
And even if antibiotics in the U.S. were better controlled, there’s the foreign factor. U.S. residents routinely cross the Southern border to buy cheap antibiotics illegally, without a prescription, and carry them back into the U.S. We sent a producer to Tijuana, Mexico.
Full Measure Producer (In Spanish): How much is that in dollars?
Pharmacy Employee (In Spanish): $12.50 U.S. dollars.
She had no problem finding pharmacies offering antibiotics for sale, without a prescription, no questions asked.
Full Measure Producer (in Spanish): I do not have a prescription, but can you sell me Penicillin or Erythromycin?
Pharmacy Employee (in Spanish): Yes.
Three out of four pharmacies we visited didn’t ask for a doctor’s prescription.
Full Measure Producer: But I don’t have a prescription?
Pharmacy Employee: That’s fine.
Sharyl: We went to Mexico and found it easy to get antibiotics without a prescription?
Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA): It’s easy to do. Then crossing over the border, a lot of our Border Patrol, they are looking for big parts of illegal drugs coming over the border, the cocaine, the heroin, coming across the border. They’re not looking for vials of some antibiotics, but it is a problem, when you add up the many, many Americans or people who bring them across the border.
Patrick McGann: I would be concerned when I would hear stories like that, because that’s exactly how things get exacerbated.
Microbiologist Patrick McGann leads a research team at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.
Patrick McGann: We keep them at minus 80 degrees Celsius.
They comb through samples sent from hospitals around the country, looking for signs of dangerous superbugs.
Patrick McGann: This is from during the Iraq War from 2003 to 2011.
Resistant bacteria caused severe problems for U.S. soldiers fighting in Iraq.
Patrick McGann: At the height of the war in 2006, there was nearly one new infection every day and they were extremely difficult to, I mean, we still have soldiers to this day that are recovering from some of the infections that they received.
Last May came a bombshell. One of the most-feared bacteria, first discovered last year in China, turned up in the U.S.
Patrick McGann: Each colony represents one bacteria.
It was McGann’s lab that found it.
Patrick McGann: I think I used an expletive when I responded back immediately, you know, “Are you, you know, are you serious?”
The sample was from a 49-year old woman hospitalized in Pennsylvania. Her urine contained bacteria with a gene called MCR-1 that makes it resistant to our best antibiotic.
Patrick McGann: So this is the original MCR-1 positive E-coli that came from that patient in Pennsylvania. Now that we have globalization, these bacteria will start to be imported into the United States from other countries, whether through food or through animals or just by people traveling, you know, from country to country.
The Centers for Disease Control estimates two million Americans a year are hit by hard to kill, drug-resistant bacteria. Twenty-three thousand die. The actual number could be much higher. The CDC doesn’t require hospitals to report superbug infections. Congressman Murphy wants mandatory reporting, but the idea doesn’t have enough support to become law.
Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA): Hospitals don’t want to be known as having an infection in them because people don’t want to come or they don’t want to have their insurance rates raised or have lawsuits. Doctors don’t want to chart it. The CDC doesn’t adequately monitor these things so all these things add up to, we have a big mess.
We asked the CDC why it doesn’t require hospitals to report their superbug outbreaks. In a statement, CDC told us it does monitor drug-resistant infections but has no regulatory power to require reporting, because "each state develops its own mandates." The agency says it is taking steps to improve the nation’s capacity to detect, respond and prevent antibiotic resistant infections.
Debbie Smoody has learned a lot about superbugs since her mother’s death. She thinks hospitals should be required to report them and warn patients of any outbreaks before they’re treated.
Debbie Smoody: To see her go from that to what she became in like a month’s time, it blows my mind. To this day, like I still can’t even believe that it all happened.
In 2015 the Obama Administration released a National Action Plan for better monitoring and nearly doubled requests for funding to fight antibiotic resistance, to more than $1.2 billion.