As infectious bacteria become even more resistant to antibiotics, chronic disease patients with weakened immune systems are in particular danger

Microbiologists and clinical laboratory managers in the United States may find it useful to learn that exceptionally virulent strains of bacteria are causing increasing numbers of cancer patient deaths in India. Given the speed with which infectious diseases spread throughout the world, it’s not surprising that deaths due to similar hospital-acquired infections (HAIs) are increasing in the US as well.

Recent news reporting indicates that an ever-growing number of cancer patients in the world’s second most populous nation are struggling to survive these infections while undergoing chemotherapy and other treatments for their cancers.

In some ways, this situation is the result of more powerful antibiotics. Today’s modern antibiotics help physicians, pathologists, and clinical laboratories protect patients from infectious disease. However, it’s a tragic fact that those same powerful drugs are making patients with chronic diseases, such as cancer, more susceptible to death from HAIs caused by bacteria that are becoming increasingly resistant to those same antibiotics.

India is a prime example of that devastating dichotomy. Bloomberg reported that a study conducted by Abdul Ghafur, MD, an infectious disease physician with Apollo Hospitals in Chennai, India, et al, concluded that “Almost two-thirds of cancer patients with a carbapenem-resistant infection are dead within four weeks, vs. a 28-day mortality rate of 38% in patients whose infections are curable.”

This news should serve as an alert to pathologists, microbiologists, and clinical laboratory leaders in the US as these same superbugs—which resist not only antibiotics but other drugs as well—may become more prevalent in this country.

 ‘We Don’t Know What to Do’

The dire challenge facing India’s cancer patients is due to escalating bloodstream infections associated with carbapenem-resistant enterobacteriaceae (CRE), a particularly deadly bacteria that has become resistant to even the most potent carbapenem antibiotics, generally considered drugs of last resort for dealing with life-threatening infections.

Lately, the problem has only escalated. “We are facing a difficult scenario—to give chemotherapy and cure the cancer and get a drug-resistant infection and the patient dying of infections.” Ghafur told Bloomberg. “We don’t know what to do. The world doesn’t know what to do in this scenario.”

Ghafur added, “However wonderful the developments in the field of oncology, they are not going to be useful, because we know cancer patients die of infections.”

Abdul Ghafur, MD (above), an infectious disease physician with Apollo Hospitals in Chennai, India, told The Better India that, “Indians, are obsessed with antibiotics and believe that they can cure almost all infections, including viral infections! Moreover, at least half of the prescriptions by Indian doctors include an antibiotic. Sadly, the public believes that whenever we get cold and cough, we need to swallow antibiotics for three days along with paracetamol [acetaminophen]! This is a myth that urgently needs to disappear!” (Photo copyright: Longitude Prize.)

The problem in India, Bloomberg reports, is exacerbated by contaminated food and water. “Germs acquired through ingesting contaminated food and water become part of the normal gut microbiome, but they can turn deadly if they escape the bowel and infect the urinary tract, blood, and other tissues.” And chemotherapy patients, who likely have weakened digestive tracts, suffer most when the deadly germs reach the urinary tract, blood, and surrounding tissues.

“Ten years ago, carbapenem-resistant superbug infections were rare. Now, infections such as carbapenem-resistant klebsiella bloodstream infection, urinary infection, pneumonia, and surgical site infections are a day-to-day problem in our (Indian) hospitals. Even healthy adults in the community may carry these bacteria in their gut in Indian metropolitan cities; up to 5% of people carry these superbugs in their intestines,” Ghafur told The Better India.

What are CRE and Why Are They So Deadly?

CRE are part of the enterobacteriaceae bacterial family, which also includes Escherichia coli (E. coli) and Klebsiella pneumoniae. CRE, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), are considered “antibiotic-resistant” because antibiotic agents known as carbapenems are becoming increasing less effective at treating enterobacteriaceae.

In fact, a 2018 study conducted by the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in New Delhi, which was published in the Journal of Global Infectious Diseases (JGID), found that bloodstream infections due to CRE were the “leading cause” of illness and death in patients with hematological malignancies, such as leukemia.

“These patients receive chemotherapy during treatment, which lead to severe mucositis of gastrointestinal tract and myelosuppression. It was hypothesized that the gut colonizer translocate into blood circulation causing [bloodstream infection],” the AIIMS paper states.

US Cases of C. auris Also Linked to CRE

Deaths in the US involving the fungus Candida auris (C. auris) have been linked to CRE as well. And, people who were hospitalized outside the US may be at particular risk.

The CDC reported on a Maryland resident who was hospitalized in Kenya with a carbapenemase-producing infection, which was later diagnosed as C. auris. The CDC describes C. auris as “an emerging drug-resistant yeast of high public concern … C auris frequently co-occurs with carbapenemase-producing organisms like CRE.”

The graphic above, developed by the NYT from CDC data, shows that Candida auris is found globally and not restricted to poor or resource-strapped nations. “The fungus seems to have emerged in several locations at once, not from a single source,” the NYT reports. This means clinical laboratories can expect to be processing more tests to identify the deadly fungus. (Graphic copyright: New York Times/CDC.)

Drug-resistant germs are a public health threat that has grown beyond overuse of antibiotics to an “explosion of resistant fungi,” reported the New York Times (NYT).

“It’s an enormous problem. We depend on being able to treat those patients with antifungals,” Matthew Fisher, PhD, Professor of Fungal Disease Epidemiology at Imperial College London, told the NYT

The NYT article states that “Nearly half of patients who contract C. auris die within 90 days, according to the CDC. Yet the world’s experts have not nailed down where it came from in the first place.”

Cases of C. auris in the US are showing up in New York, New Jersey, and Illinois and is arriving on travelers from many countries, including India, Pakistan, South Africa, Spain, United Kingdom, and Venezuela.  

“It is a creature from the black lagoon,” Tom Chiller, MD, Chief of the Mycotic Diseases Branch at the CDC told the NYT. “It bubbled up and now it is everywhere.”

Since antibiotics are used heavily in agriculture and farming worldwide, the numbers of antibiotic-resistant infections will likely increase. Things may get worse, before they get better.

Pathologists, microbiologists, oncologists, and clinical laboratories involved in caring for patients with antibiotic-resistant infections will want to fully understand the dangers involved, not just to patients, but to healthcare workers as well.

—Donna Marie Pocius

Related Information:

Superbugs Deadlier than Cancer Put Chemotherapy into Question

Taking Antibiotics for a Viral Infection? A Doc Shares Why You Should Think Twice

Healthcare-Associated Infections: CRE

Rectal Carriage of Carbapenem-resistant enterobacteriaceae: A Menace to Highly Vulnerable Patients

Clinical Study of Carbapenem Sensitive and Resistant Gram-negative Bacteria in Neutropenic and Nonneutropenic Patients: The First Series from India

Candida Auris in a U.S. Patient with Carbapenemase-Producing Organisms and Recent Hospitalization in Kenya

Deadly Germs, Lost Cures: A Mysterious Infection, Spanning the Globe in a Climate of Secrecy

University of Edinburgh Study Finds Antimicrobial Bacteria in Hospital Wastewater in Research That Has Implications for Microbiologists

Pathologists and Clinical Laboratories to Play Critical Role in Developing New Tools to Fight Antibiotic Resistance

Lurking Below: NIH Study Reveals Surprising New Source of Antibiotic Resistance That Will Interest Microbiologists and Medical Laboratory Scientists