Antibiotic shortages ratchet up superbugs' threat to patient safety

As controversy continues to swirl around superbug outbreaks in U.S. hospitals, a new study sounds the alarm that shortages of key antibiotics could make drug-resistant bacteria an even bigger threat to patients.

The study, recently published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, bills itself as the first comprehensive evaluation of antibacterial drug shortages in the United States. After analyzing drug shortage data from the University of Utah's Drug Information Service database, researchers found that 148 antibiotics experienced shortages between 2001 and 2013, and these shortages experienced a "dramatic" rise starting in 2007.

In all, 22 percent of the antibiotics researchers analyzed experienced multiple shortages, with a median duration of more than six months. Nearly half of those shortages involved antibiotics used to treat "high-risk pathogens" such as Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), Clostridium difficile and carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE).

CRE outbreaks tied to the use of specialized devices known as duodenoscopes led to two patient deaths at a California hospital and sickened scores in other states, FierceHealthcare reported. This "nightmare bacteria" and its drug-resistant cousins have received increasing attention of late, due in part to the White House's recently released $1.2 billion plan to combat-antibiotic resistant infections. This effort comes on the heels of a report from the British government that warns superbugs could cause 10 million deaths per year and cost $100 trillion per year by 2050 if global governments fail to act.

Indeed, the drug shortage study's findings indicate that "this is a big problem, one that we don't really yet have a strategy to deal with," study author Larissa May, M.D., of George Washington University, said in a statement. "There are some significant implications for patient care that are very disturbing and are likely to become more significant unless we take steps to mitigate them."

Among five broad-based goals in its plan to combat superbugs, the Obama administration aims to "increase and accelerate research and development for new therapeutics and antibiotics." One such drug is Teixobactin, a new antibiotic developed by researchers at Northeastern University that holds promise for treating C. diff and MRSA, according to FierceHealthcare.

For their part, the study authors advocate for a host of measures that could curtail the damage of antibiotic shortages. These include improved communication between pharmacists and clinicians to identify shortages before drugs are prescribed; requirements that drug manufacturers report shortages earlier; and antibiotic stewardship efforts to identify effective alternative treatment options.

To learn more:
- here's the study (subscription required)
- read the statement