Jeff O'Regon was the kind of celebrity you don't want to be. He became the most talked about patient in the hospital when doctors found a superbug in him they had never seen before. Scientists warn there will be more cases like his, and that antibiotic resistance could potentially kill more people in the future than cancer kills today. That's because the overuse of antibiotics worldwide is creating super bacteria resistant to all but the strongest antibiotics. Holly Williams reports on these superbugs on the next edition of 60 Minutes, Sunday, April 21, at 7:00 p.m., ET/PT on CBS.
"I became, like a famous person at the hospital. Very strange," recalls O'Regon. "Within a day or two of that a lot of different doctors were coming in to visit me, asking me a lot of questions." Doctor's had discovered O'Regon was infected with a bacteria once easily treated with antibiotics, that had evolved to become resistant to all but the toxic, "last line" antibiotic Colistin. O'Regon was one of the first Americans to pick up a superbug with the MCR-1 mutation. It has now been found in 19 states according to the Centers for Disease Control.
60 Minutes traveled to India with Ramanan Laxminarayan, director of the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy and a senior research scholar at Princeton University. While superbugs can emerge from anywhere, he says developing countries create the "perfect storm" for antibiotic resistance. In addition to selling antibiotics over the counter, the use of antibiotics to promote growth in animals is widespread.
At a poultry farm outside Delhi, Laxminarayan explained, "The chicks are eating constantly. There are antibiotics in that feed, which means that their bacteria are being exposed to the antibiotics on a constant basis, and constantly selecting for resistance." Once a superbug evolves, it can easily spread between animals and humans.
Massachusetts General Hospital microbiologist and infectious disease doctor Sarah Turbett had to place O'Regon in isolation to prevent the superbug from spreading.
"It's not completely clear how it ended up in Jeff… [MCR-1] has been reported in the Caribbean. And so it's possible that when he was there, he ate something that maybe wasn't well cooked or he picked it up and it just colonized his gastrointestinal tract," says Turbett.
O'Regon still fights the superbug nearly two years after his diagnosis. Doctors are using the one drug still effective against the infection. "Right now that's my last line of defense," he tells Williams.
Unless the world learns to curb its use of antibiotics, a return to the pre-antibiotic era could occur in the future. Doctors warn that if antibiotics are rendered useless by superbugs, everything from a small cut to a major surgery could result in an incurable infection and death. A study commissioned by the British government estimates that by 2050, 10 million people worldwide could die each year from antibiotic-resistant bacteria.