Courtesy USA Today
Antibiotic resistance that turns ordinary disease-causing bacteria into illnesses that can't be controlled could bring about the "next pandemic," Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Tom Frieden warned at a National Press Club event Tuesday.
Frieden also addressed a series of laboratory safety lapses that brought CDC lab precautions to the public spotlight. But he devoted much of his attention Tuesday to other threats still facing public health.
Frieden brought attention to the growing trend of antibiotic-resistant bacteria — which can cause patients to "enter the hospital with one disease and leave with another," Frieden said. Antibiotics and similar drugs — referred to under the umbrella of anti-microbrial agents — have been commonly used to treat infections and diseases for the past 70 years. However, their common use has caused some bacteria to mutate and become resistant to these drugs, according to the CDC.
Frieden cited CRE — a deadly family of bacteria that are nearly immune to antibiotics — as one of the most problematic infections because of their ability to "jump" between organisms and even species.
"Anti-microbial resistance has the potential to harm or kill anyone in the country, undermine modern medicine, to devastate our economy and to make our health care system less stable," Frieden said.
Antibiotic resistance costs $20 billion in health care spending a year, Frieden said. To combat the spread of resistant bacteria, Frieden said the CDC plans to isolate their existence in hospitals and shrink the numbers through tracking and stricter prevention methods.
"We always want to be part of the solution, but sometimes in health we're part of the problem," Frieden said.
Human error was a large part of the discussion surrounding CDC in recent weeks, with the series of troubling lab-safety lapses involving live samples of anthrax and a cross-contaminated strain of bird flu that caused CDC to shut down two of its research labs and vow to strengthen its lab-safety regulations.
Frieden also appeared before an oversight subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on July 16 to testify on the lab-safety incidents. The committee is investigating the agency's safety protocols and whether any of the staff had been infected.
Frieden confirmed again at the press club that no staff or members of the public were exposed to any pathogens and the CDC is still implementing its changes to lab-safety precautions. The CDC is still investigating the bird flu breaches, he said.
Although the CDC missed the pattern of weaknesses in lab safety until now, Frieden said, the agency is working to remain transparent from now on.
"If you work with dangerous organisms day after day, month after month, year after year, sometimes there is a tendency to get lax," Frieden said. "What we have to ensure is that though human error may be inevitable, we should do everything in our power to make sure that … there will not be human harm."