Shortage of Antibiotics

POSTED: Thursday, December 3, 2009 - 11:15am

UPDATED: Thursday, June 3, 2010 - 10:59pm

Just two weeks after doctors implanted a pacemaker into 42-year-old James Hensley ... his health deteriorated. "It was swollen, red and inflamed. We had an infection in there," Hensley said.

Doctors eventually found a type of slow-growing bacteria in the area where the pacemaker had been. But it was too late. The infection was already spreading. "Really, it was just a constant pain and struggling," Hensley said.

What Hensley needed was the right combination of antibiotics to kill the bacteria. He was able to get the medications he needed, but medical experts are warning, patients like Hensley may be out of luck in the near future.

"The cupboard is bare," Dr. Allan Morrison, an infectious disease specialist, said. He says drug companies aren't making as many antibiotics as they used to and development of new ones is at an all-time low. An investigation by the Infectious Diseases Society of America or IDSA found that over the last 25 years, there's been a 75 percent decrease in antibiotic production.

"It takes millions of dollars to bring a product to market. The percentage that actually bring FDA approval are really small," Dr. Morrison said. In fact, IDSA's investigation found that it can take nearly 2 billion dollars to get a new drug approved. Morrison says that's why drug companies aren't developing new antibiotics ... a huge problem, because more and more types of bacteria are becoming drug resistant.

Just two years ago, methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus or MRSA tore through communities, causing scores of schools to close. Every year, that bacteria kills thousands of people. "Even if they were to bring a product into the pipeline, which usually takes five to seven years to fruition, by the time that antibiotic is mature and ready to be approved, the bacteria could already be resistant to it," Dr. Morrison said.

Another issue ... some drug companies are decreasing production of commonly used medications like penicillin and amoxicillin. "It's a drug that's important. It provides a clear benefit for patients, but it's not worth it to make it and so the production of it is ceased," Dr. Morrison said.

IDSA and Morrison both say ... it comes down to money. Selling lifestyle or chronic disease medications -- things like erectile dysfunction drugs and antidepressants -- are much more profitable than selling antibiotics. But for patients like James Hensley, without antibiotics, he may not be alive today.

"Any kind of bacteria found in the blood could definitely build up in my heart and then who knows what would happen," Hensley said. WRC contacted PHRMA - an organization representing the pharmaceutical industry -- a spokesman said he can not comment on the individual decisions that a drug company makes.

There are already shortages of some types of antibiotics used in hospitals. But medical experts say, if something isn't done soon, in as little as 10 years, we could see major shortages of more common antibiotics.