Another resistant bug rising: Acinetobacter

From the excellent and forward-thinking research team at Extending the Cure comes a dismaying report: over 7 years, a more than 3-fold increase in resistance in the Gram-negative bacterium Acinetobacter baumanii to its drug of last resort, imipenem.

Because MRSA is a Gram-positive, we don’t talk much here about the Gram-negatives — the two categories of bacteria have different cell-wall structures and thus are treated using different categories of drugs. (That structural difference causes them to react in different ways to a stain invented by a scientist named Gram in the 19th century.) But the resistance situation with Gram-negatives is at least as dire as with MRSA, possible more so, because there are fewer new drugs for Gram-negatives in the pharmacology pipeline (as discussed in a New Yorker article by Dr. Jerome Groopman last year.)

And Acinetobacter is one nasty bug, as science journalist Steve Silberman ably documented in Wired in 2007 when he traced the spread of the organism through the military medical-evacuation chain from Iraq, demonstrating that the vast increase in resistant Acinetobacter among US forces was due to our own poor infection control.

The Extending the Cure paper (which will be published in February in Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology) puts hard numbers to the Acinetobacter problem. Drawing on data from the private Surveillance Network, which gathers real-time electronic results from 300 US hospitals, they find:

  • full resistance to imipenem rose from 4.5% of isolates in 1999 to 18.2% in 2006 — a 300% increase
  • intermediate resistance rose from 1.3% of isolates to 9.4 — a 623% increase
  • susceptible isolates declined from 94.1% to 72.4% — a 23% decrease.

The authors write:
Our results demonstrate substantial national and regional increases in carbapenem resistance among clinical isolates of Acinetobacter species over the period 1999–2006. Increasing carbapenem resistance among Acinetobacter species is particularly troubling, because it is very often associated with multidrug resistance and because it is occurring in the context of increases in the incidence of Acinetobacter infection.

There’s a further point to be made that is not explicit in the paper that I can see (though it is often made by Extending the Cure researchers). Acinetobacter needs attention, just as MRSA does — but if we focus just on the individual organisms, we are not going far enough. Antibiotic resistance is a system problem: It is an issue of infection control, of drug development, of agricultural organization, of federal priorities. It needs sustained attention and comprehensive, thoughtful, wide-ranging response. Now would not be too soon.


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