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OpEd: For human reasons, bacteria are winning

I hope you never have this experience: A loved one is hospitalized. Her doctors tell you her infection is resistant to antibiotics. She dies. More than 60,000 American families go through that experience each year -- and the number is almost certain to rise.

Multidrug-resistant organisms are showing up in top-flight hospitals -- like the klebsiella found this year in the National Institutes of Health's Clinical Center that may have led to the deaths of seven patients. Even infections that used to be a breeze to treat, like gonorrhea, are becoming incurable.

In much of the world, of course, bacterial disease is a routine cause of tragedy. Tuberculosis alone kills 1.4 million people a year. One reason for this staggeringly high figure is that most people in the world are too poor to pay for most medicines. But another reason is that some strains of tuberculosis bacteria have become resistant to most of the drugs we have. Even after two years of toxic treatment, drug-resistant tuberculosis has a fatality rate of about 50 percent.

What makes the rapid loss of antibiotics to drug resistance particularly alarming is that we are failing to make new ones. We are emptying our medicine chest of the most important class of medicines we ever had. And the cause can be traced, for the most part, to two profound problems.

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