Health and Science

Superbug targeting American kids, says study

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There's a new and serious threat from an antibiotic resistant superbug—this time involving the nation's children.

According to a study published this month in the Journal of Pediatric Infectious Diseases Society, infections caused by a specific type of drug resistant bacteria are on the rise in U.S. children, especially in ages 1 to 5.

The problem, said Dr. Latania Logan, lead researcher on the study, is that there aren't enough options to stop the spread of the bacteria.

"The infection is fairly common in children, but the real issue is that we just don't have any drugs available to treat the infections," said Logan.

Logan, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, explained that the resistant bacteria produces an enzyme called extended spectrum beta-lactamase (ESBL) that stops strong antibiotics from being effective.

Logan's report stated that the enzymes were found in children across the country of all ages but slightly more than half of the bacteria with this resistance were from those ages 1 to 5.

Logan said that the overall rate of the ESBL type of infections in children are low but it can spread rapidly and is linked to longer stays in the hospital and increased mortality.

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Deaths of children rising

More than 2 million people a year in the U.S. get sick from the superbugs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention resulting in 23,000 deaths. Logan couldn't say how many of those are children but she said the number of superbug deaths related to children is rising.

The main superbug threats are the six labeled under the acronym ESKAPE—notably MRSA and, more recently, CRE, which has been found almost exclusively in hospitals and other health care facilities.

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Non-CDC estimates put the health-care costs associated with the drug-resistant bacteria at $20 billion a year. They cost another $35 billion in lost productivity.

Help on the way?

According to medical experts, the cause for the resistance is that antibiotics are increasingly given to patients for common viral ailments such as colds and flu, for which antibiotics are ineffective anyway.

There's also concern that antibiotics are being overused in animal livestock and helping to create more drug resistant bacteria that could work their way into humans.

And there are more disturbing reports about superbugs and kids. As many as 32,000 children worldwide become sick each year with a drug-resistant superbug strain of tuberculosis, according to U.S. researchers.

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"We have to figure out a way to use antibiotics more effectively and at the same time develop new drugs to counteract the drug resistant bacteria," Logan said. "The situation will only get worse for children and everyone if we don't."

Some help could be on the way. In his budget proposal yet to work its way through Congress, President Barack Obama called for the government to spend $30 million over the next five years to detect and prevent superbug infections.

—By CNBC's Mark Koba. Follow him on Twitter @MarkKobaCNBC.