Superbug deaths: States, feds and hospitals fail to track cases

Experts have long warned drug-resistant superbugs are a grave threat at both a national and global level, but a Reuters investigation reveals insufficient reporting requirements within the healthcare industry exacerbates the problem.

While federal authorities declared superbugs a major public health threat 15 years ago, tens of thousands of deaths go unflagged due to lack of federal and state tracking, Reuters found.

Part of the problem: superbugs often go unmentioned on death certificates, whether due to lack of training in how to fill out the forms or more obvious conditions obscuring the infection, the report noted. In the meantime, healthcare’s increased emphasis on penalties for lack of infection control gives hospitals an incentive to avoid thorough reporting. A paper trail also provides fuel for potential lawsuits, Reuters reported.

At the state level, officials’ hands are often tied, according to Reuters. For example, only two states, Washington and Illinois, require doctors to specify when a methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infection contributed to a death. Most states ban providers from knowingly making false statements on certificates, but such regulations are both hard to enforce and usually too small to be an effective deterrent.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has difficulty monitoring superbug rates as well; while it regularly publishes statistics, analysis of its methodology finds the agency often relies on small samples and timeframes that don’t incorporate heavily populated areas, according to Reuters. 

Under pressure from Congress and the press to produce concrete numbers quickly, the best the CDC can do is “an impressionist painting rather than something that is much more technical,” Michael Craig, the agency’s senior adviser for antibiotic resistance coordination and strategy, told Reuters.

In the meantime, the United Nations General Assembly will convene a meeting this month to discuss antibiotic resistance and the superbug explosion in New York City, according to the Scientific American. The body has only met to discuss a health issue on three prior occasions. The meeting serves as “a clear recognition that this is a worldwide threat to everyone and worldwide action is what we need to address it,” Ezekiel Emanuel, M.D., Ph.D., chair of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania, told the publication.

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