Superbugs, or bacteria that have grown immune to the drugs used to treat them, are rapidly becoming a global public health crisis. In the United States alone, at least 2 million people become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, and at least 23,000 people die every year from those infections.
Combating this problem is going to require a collaborative effort, according to antibiotic resistance experts at Fortune’s Brainstorm Health conference in San Diego. Here are three key ways medicine must change in order to keep antibiotics effective and superbugs from taking over.
Use fewer antibiotics
About half of the antibiotic use in healthcare settings is inappropriate, said Dr. Jean Patel, an antimicrobial resistance expert at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Patel said that national and global public health groups are focused on developing systems to better track antibiotic use in hospitals.
Hospitals and doctor's offices aren't the only problems. The use of antibiotics in agriculture also needs oversight, she said. Livestock producers use antibiotics to prevent disease among their animals and to help them bulk up. "Unless we can improve antibiotic use on the farm, then we are going to see these problems arise," said Patel.
Diagnose health problems faster
Determining the cause of a health problem and treating it quickly is another way to cut down on unnecessary antibiotic use. With a precise diagnosis, doctors can pinpoint which drugs are needed (or not) to treat a person's condition. Dr. Charles Chiu, director of University of California, San Francisco's Viral Diagnostics and Discovery Center announced that his team is launching a large new study that could make diagnostics faster and more accurate for the diseases meningitis and encephalitis. "Very often we go through a list [of health problems] and still can’t diagnose a disease," said Chiu. Antibiotics could be spared for many patients if the new test proves successful.
Get pharma involved
Currently, there's little financial incentive for drug companies to develop new antibiotics, said Dr. Jonathan Thomas, chair of the governing board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. "It’s been a major problem for decades. So far there hasn’t been any comprehensive solution, and until you [change that], you will see [pharmaceutical companies] on the sidelines and the problem getting worse."
Including reimbursements from the government for drug companies that put in the resources to develop new antibiotics or taxing the sale of antibiotics could spur the pharmaceutical industry to get involved, Thomas said.