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FRONTLINE | Hunting the Nightmare Bacteria

Watch Tuesday, October 22, 2013 at 10pm on WMHT TV.

Addie Rerecich was a happy 11-year-old girl who loved sports and talked a mile a minute. But when a mysterious pain in her hip landed her in the hospital in 2011, she began a downward spiral into the nightmare of a new kind of antibiotic-resistant infection that is confounding doctors across the world.

Addie’s precipitous decline might sound unusual, but as FRONTLINE reports in Hunting the Nightmare Bacteria, medicine’s struggle with deadly drug-resistant infections is becoming all too real.

“The world is entering a post-antibiotic era. Doctors tell me there are patients for whom we have no therapy. The bacteria are growing stronger, and the drug pipeline is drying up,” says award-winning journalist David E. Hoffman, who investigates the crisis for FRONTLINE.

In Hunting the Nightmare Bacteria, Hoffman examines the alarming rise of superbugs that our modern antibiotics can’t stop—from Addie Rerecich’s case to that of David Ricci, who brings a nasty infection home from India, and to a rare look inside an uncontrollable outbreak at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center—the NIH—one of the nation’s most prestigious research hospitals, where 18 patients were sickened and seven died.

“The rise of antimicrobial resistance is a threat to us all. Prominent public health officials are using words like ‘nightmare’ and ‘catastrophic,’” Hoffman says. “But even though we’ve known about this problem for decades, the alarms have not been met with similar levels of urgency in the public or the government.”

As FRONTLINE reports, after decades of antibiotic overuse, the crisis of untreatable infections has only deepened. Most major drug companies, squeezed by Wall Street expectations and facing steep scientific hurdles, have abandoned the development of new antibiotics. The film takes viewers behind the story of one major drug company’s efforts to overcome the new drug-resistant superbugs—and why, despite those efforts, the drug pipeline is running dry.

“Twenty-five years ago, there were more than 25 large companies working to discover and develop new antibiotics,” infectious disease doctor Brad Spellberg tells FRONTLINE. “Now there’s two, maybe three.”

Compounding the problem is the fact that these superbugs are now spreading in frightening ways with alarming speed, both across the globe and inside hospitals—though few hospitals are willing to talk about the problem publicly.

But FRONTLINE was granted unprecedented access to the NIH, where some of the nation’s top clinical specialists struggled to control the spread of a deadly outbreak in 2011. The specialists remain confounded—and their experience has serious implications for the rest of the country: These new threats have been found in almost every state.

“The average person thinks, ‘Oh, I have an infection, I take an antibiotic, I get better,’” says nurse Tonya Rerecich, whose daughter Addie’s story is featured in the FRONTLINE report. “Yeah, it’s not that simple anymore.” 

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