Bacteria easily elude human detection—even those that can make us sick—quietly spreading from person to person, country to country. A recent global spike in bugs that are resistant to common antibiotics, however, has caused many scientists and policymakers to pay closer attention to when and where these infections are occurring.
A new collection of updated interactive world maps reveal the prevalence of many of these so-called superbugs, including the prevalence of the relatively common MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) as well as newly concerning gram-negative E. coli strains.
Many of these tough-to-beat infections are picked up by patients in healthcare settings but have also been documented spreading in the community at large. And with the standard treatments off the table, antibiotic-resistant infections they can be expensive and deadly—killing some 100,000 people and costing some $45 billion each year, a Scientific American article noted in May.
The resource, called ResistanceMap, was created by the research effort called Extending the Cure, funded in part by the non-profit Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. "With this tool, public health officials, researchers and others can see the progression of antibiotic resistance in the United States and worldwide," Ramanan Laxminarayan, Extending the Cure director, said in a prepared statement.
"By mapping the geography of resistance, we can better identify regions at risk from outbreaks," he said.
The research group found, for example, that the U.S. has one of the highest rates of resistant staph strains among developed countries even though its prevalence in hospitals here has been declining since 2005. And the U.S. Southeast has an exceptionally high rate of drug-resistant staph, with about 69 percent of samples showing resistance to commonly used antibiotics, such as methicillin.
The map can also illuminate lines of victory against superbugs. "This map allows us to look for solutions and pinpoint regions of the world where infection control practices have been particularly successful," Laxminarayan said. A coalition of French hospitals, for example, has been able to beat back MRSA by more than a third with simple control programs, such as better hand-washing and faster reporting of new cases, according to a 2010 study.
And with genetic sequencing becoming more accurate, rapid and affordable, researchers are now able to keep tabs on more specific strains of MRSA to better understand how they spread.