Tom Dukes never thought it could happen to him. He was the picture of health, an energetic 52-year-old sales executive in Lomita, Calif., who worked out four hours a day. That was until late last year, when he was rushed to the hospital in agonizing pain. An hour later he was on the operating table.
"I thought I may just be saying goodbye," Duke said. "That was my last thought." Dukes awoke to a shocking reality: surgeons had to repair a hole in his abdomen caused by a raging E.coli infection that developed after eating contaminated meat. This E.coli bacterium was more aggressive than most, because it had several genetic mutations -- making it resistant to antibiotics.
Dukes' story concerns infectious disease doctors like Brad Spellberg, author of Rising Plague.
He said these organisms are "the experts at resistance." He said more infections are starting out as bacteria, in food or other ordinary places and evolving into deadly drug-resistant superbugs.
"It is starting to move out of the hospitals and into the communities," Spellberg said.
"And what happens to those people?" Couric asked.
"They fail antibiotic therapy," Spellberg replied. "We're at a point where we may have to start admitting tens of thousands of women with simple urinary tract infections to the hospital."
"Because that infection has outsmarted the pills?"
"Yep. Because the E.coli that causes most urinary tract infections is becoming resistant."
Health officials say that resistance is growing, especially among five deadly bacteria. Virtually all of them carry genes that prevent antibiotics from working - and these genetic mutations are spreading.
Another reason for these lethal strains: the overuse of antibiotics. A recent study found more than 60 percent of antibiotics prescribed were unnecessary.
"It's a crisis that touches every country on the globe, it touches people in all socio-economic classes, all races," said John Rex. Rex is the head of drug development for AstraZeneca, one of only a few pharmaceutical companies still devoting resources for new medicines to cure these lethal bugs.
"The trick is to find something that kills the bacteria but doesn't hurt you or me," Rex said.
Developing a new antibiotic takes at least 10 years and costs as much as $1.7 billion. Drug companies make more money creating medicines people take every day for chronic conditions like high blood pressure, insomnia or sexual dysfunction.
Spellberg considers it a grave public health crisis. "The convergence of two public health crises -- skyrocketing antibiotic resistance, and dying antibiotic development."
It took four months and several drugs for Tom Dukes to finally beat his infection. But he says he'll never completely recover. "I think about it every day. Because if it hadn't worked, I wouldn't be here."
Infectious Disease Society of America
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
CDC: Get Smart about Antibiotics