Antibiotic expert nearly died after infection caused by gardening cut

Rick Bright led the US Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority from 2016 to 2020.
Courtesy of Rick Bright

  • Rick Bright, a government whistleblower, is sounding the alarm over antibiotic resistance.
  • He was previously hospitalized with a fatal drug-resistant infection and nearly had to undergo surgery.
  • He says everyone should require doctors to test for specific bacteria before using antibiotics.

Rick Bright didn’t think cutting back on gardening was a big deal.

He was working in his little herb garden in the spring of 2018, and then noticed “some kind of gash on my thumb,” he told Insider.

It looked like “a little pimple that just kept getting bigger and bigger,” he said.

At the time, Bright was responsible for antibacterial programs at the US Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), preparing for potential pandemic threats and developing bioterrorism countermeasures.

His infectious disease colleagues, however, were increasingly concerned about the appearance of his thumb.

“One of them looked at my thumb one day and said, ‘If you don’t go to the ER now, you could get sepsis and die,'” Bright recalled.

He didn’t think it was that serious, but after work he headed for emergency care. By the time he was examined that evening, the bump was turning redder and Bright had a fever. He went to several different clinics and eventually found someone willing to prescribe him an inexpensive antibiotic. At that time, his doctors had no idea what kind of infection he actually had – or any indication that the drug would work against him.

“I actually begged them and forced them to open it up and grow it,” Bright said.

Bright had a drug-resistant infection and almost had to have surgery

Staphylococcus aureus, commonly known as MRSA, is a common problem in hospitals. This can lead to invasive infections and death.
BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images

After six days of worsening symptoms, emergency room visits and multiple prescriptions, his lab culture results came back: Bright had a drug-resistant MRSA staph infection, an infection that none of the various antibiotics that had given him been prescribed so far could not cure.

Doctors were able to give him a special, more expensive and stronger IV antibiotic that works on MRSA, called vancomycin. By this point, the infection had moved up his arm and Bright was in the hospital.

He was due to have surgery the next day to remove the infected tissue from his arm, but within hours his infection started to improve a little. Bright’s thumb, arm, and possibly life were spared.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 20,000 deaths in the United States each year are associated with antibiotic-resistant MRSA infections.

“I just think people need to be aware that they can die from a gardening incident,” he said. “I personally had to demand a diagnostic test in order to get treatment, the right treatment for my infection.”

He thinks you should too – every time you use an antibiotic.

‘It’s only a matter of time’ before drug-resistant infections find you

Former BARDA director Rick Bright testifying before members of Congress in May 2020.
Shawn Thew/AFP via Getty Images

Drug-resistant infections can be caused by a wide range of pathogens, including bacteria and fungi, and can easily spread from water or dirt to people.

Recent examples include a drug-resistant form of gonorrhea detected in Massachusetts, drug-resistant eye infections causing blindness and at least one death in the United States, and drug-resistant yeast infections caused by several different species of fungi. candida.

“Most people don’t realize the walls are closing in around them,” Bright said, noting that “it’s only a matter of time” before these superbugs become “more pathogenic, cause more diseases and become resistant” to all the treatments we have.

That’s why Bright and other experts often refer to antimicrobial resistance as the “silent pandemic.”

It is fueled by a confluence of factors. Improper antibiotic prescriptions that don’t work are only one piece of the puzzle – these prescriptions are not only unnecessary, they also help teach organisms to become even more resistant to generic first-line antibiotics. Another problem is the excessive use of antibiotics and antifungals in agriculture. Unnecessary antibiotics for viral infections like COVID and flu are a third.

“People should ask their doctor questions,” Bright said, “Why are you giving me this? Did you actually test for bacteria? Do you really know what I have?”

People should demand that their doctor test to find out what’s causing an infection, says Bright

Antibiotic resistance tests, like those made here in France, can help determine which drugs will work and which won’t.
Damien Meyer/AFP via Getty Images

What Bright and others concerned about antimicrobial resistance are advocating for is systemic change in US health care. They want to change the way doctors diagnose and treat patients – as well as the way insurance companies incentivize doctors to continue using cheap antibiotics without testing to make sure their treatment is right.

“I have developed with our partners at the company some amazing new antibiotics, and these antibiotics can save so many lives and healthcare costs,” Bright said, referring to his time at BARDA. “But these companies are now bankrupt” because their treatments cost more than generic antibiotic prescriptions.

“People should demand a test,” Bright said. “I could have saved our healthcare system, my insurance company, my arm and maybe my life, if they had given me this more expensive drug on day one because they had done the diagnostic test and determined that it was the only thing that worked.”

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