SuperbugsNew estimates aim to define the true burden of superbug infections

By Chris Dall

Published 13 February 2019

Millions of Americans who experience complications from an antibiotic-resistant infection each year. These infections place a substantial clinical, emotional, and financial burden on patients, their families, and the US healthcare system. But just how many people in the United States are dying from antibiotic resistance? Many researchers and epidemiologists wrestle with that question.

By September of 2013, disease had already punished Meredith Littlejohn’s body. A drug-resistant infection was the last thing she needed.

Nearly ten months earlier, Meredith, a high school senior in St. Louis with college plans and a bright future, had been diagnosed as having acute myeloid leukemia.

After four rounds of chemotherapy, her cancer went into remission, and it looked as though she would be able to resume her path. She attended her senior prom, graduated with her class in the spring, and start planning for her freshman year at Emory University in Atlanta.

But the cancer returned in June, and with more rounds of chemotherapy, Meredith’s immune system became more and more compromised. In August she contracted a fungal infection, which her doctors were able to control only after trying several different combinations of drugs. Then in September the doctors found a Pseudomonas infection under her arm.

Pseudomonas aeruginosa is a common pathogen in hospitals, known for its ability to survive in harsh environments and cause severe infections. And it’s become increasingly drug-resistant, acquiring an array of different weapons to help it fend off antibiotics.

In Meredith’s case, the Pseudomonas infection didn’t respond to several newer antibiotics, but it remained localized. As a stand-by, her doctors were prepared to use colistin—a last-resort antibiotic with an extremely toxic effect in kidneys—in the event the infection worsened.

Meredith wasn’t done fighting. In October she received a successful bone marrow transplant, and things were starting to look up. But the Pseudomonas infection persisted and began to spread, and colistin didn’t help. First it invaded her lungs, then her bloodstream, causing septic shock.

The doctors were able to resuscitate her the first time, and then again when she went into septic shock the next day. But when septic shock assaulted her body a third time, they weren’t able to save her. Meredith Littlejohn died in November 2013, at the age of 19.