Health officials worried pandemic may be contributing to spike in antibiotic-resistant 'superbugs'

Alex Jokich
Updated: January 21, 2021 06:51 PM
Created: January 21, 2021 06:15 PM

The COVID-19 pandemic may be contributing to overuse of antibiotics in children, leading to a spike in antibiotic-resistant 'superbugs.'

"We've certainly seen spikes in antibiotic-resistant infections in our hospital, the Masonic Children's Hospital, as well as in children's hospitals across the country," Dr. Mark Schleiss, a pediatric infectious disease physician with the University of Minnesota Medical School and M Health Fairview, said. "A superbug has acquired genetic traits that make it resistant to multiple different classes of antibiotics and that's a very dangerous situation when we encounter it."

Dr. Schleiss said overuse of antibiotics can cause bacteria to mutate, leading to antibiotic-resistant infections.

A new study published in the Clinical Infectious Diseases journal analyzed thousands of hospitalized kids across the country who had been prescribed antibiotics in 2016 and 2017. It found 26% either didn't need the antibiotic they were given or it was not the right antibiotic for the infection they had.

The cases studied were pre-pandemic but Dr. Schleiss believes COVID-19 may make the ongoing issue even worse.

"COVID-19 has certainly, to some extent, thrown gas on the fire by sort of forcing our hand to use antibiotics just because these kids are so ill," Dr. Schleiss said. "Children with COVID often come into the hospital with high fevers, we have children that are very ill-appearing, so clinicians will often use antibiotics in that setting because it's hard to exclude a bacterial infection, at least initially."

Dr. Schleiss cautions prescribers and parents to remain diligent about the possibility of antibiotic overuse.

"It is a real problem and we take it very seriously," said Dr. Christina Koutsari, the infectious diseases and antimicrobial stewardship pharmacist at Children's Minnesota.

Dr. Koutsari said Children's Minnesota launched its antimicrobial stewardship program two years ago to oversee antibiotic use in the hospital, in the face of this growing problem. She said they monitor patients' cases to make sure children are receiving the right medication in the right dose over the correct amount of time.

"Many national and international organizations have acknowledged antibiotic overuse as a global threat," Dr. Koutsari said.

She said the antibiotic-resistant infections that can develop often leave patients with few options for treatment.

"It will be very scary for the patient and it would be a very scary situation if this happens to many, many patients in our community," Dr. Koutsari explained.

Dr. Schleiss added, "Our greatest concern of all is the potential for disability or loss of life because an infection is simply untreatable."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls antibiotic resistance a 'public health priority,' noting more global action is needed.

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