LA County looks deeper as WHO raises the alarm on superbugs

This illustration released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a group of carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae bacteria.
This illustration released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a group of carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae bacteria.

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L.A. County is conducting research to learn more about antibiotic-resistant infections at local hospitals. Researchers say their findings will help doctors make better choices in treatment.

The news comes after a recent World Health Organization report shows antibiotic resistance is worse than previously known. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 2 million Americans get sick from an antibiotic-resistant pathogen every year, killing 23,000 of them.

The 1928 discovery of penicillin changed the course of medicine, but its effectiveness is dropping as more antibiotics lose their potency against bacteria and too few new ones are in development.

"We not only need more drugs. We need new unique drugs. If we keep trying to win the battle with the same tools, the antibiotic-resistance mechanisms of these organisms are going to learn how to evade that," said Dr. James McKinnell, infectious disease specialist with L.A. County.

The WHO estimates there will only be about 10 new drug approvals in the next 5 years. That won’t be sufficient to tackle the number and types of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Matt Zahn, medical director for epidemiology at Orange County Health Care Agency, said humans are playing catchup in the fight against bacteria.

"We’re a newer player in this game. Bacteria have been at this for a long period of time. They’re reacting as we have in the past and we have to be aware of that and evolve our responses according," Zahn said.

California legislators have a bill that would require the California Department of Public Health to collect a lot more data. Under the bill, hospitals would give the state a report that they already generate called an antibiogram—a tool that provides a picture of the prevalence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and what works and doesn’t work against them.

The state Department of Public Health opposed the bill this summer. The department says antibiograms are not useful outside of a clinical setting. But L.A. County is using them.

"The regional antibiogram is becoming one of the most important tools that we have to tracking known resistance and emerging pathogens," McKinnell said.

Researchers say the challenges associated with collecting antibiograms comes from the fact that each medical facility has its own unique way of styling the report. That creates challenges in compiling the data for analysis. It could be difficult to put it all together into one coherent picture.

Still, state and county public health officials work to communicate with hospitals and doctors about responsibly prescribing antibiotics. They’re also giving physicians guidance about which antibiotics are most useful for certain types of bacteria.