Antibiotics, the cornerstone of modern medicine, make surgeries and other major medical treatments possible.

Without them, even dental work would be more dangerous and potentially lethal.

Preventive antibiotics are routinely given to people undergoing surgery and cancer treatments to stop infection before it begins.

But these drugs are gradually losing their effectiveness as the bacteria they’re supposed to kill have evolved defenses and are becoming impervious to the most powerful antibiotics in the world.

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New research predicts that even a 30 percent reduction in the efficacy of current antibiotics could result in 120,000 more infections and 6,300 more infection-related deaths every year in the United States.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates 2 million infections annually in the United States are caused by drug-resistant bacteria, such as carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE), methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), or C. difficile.

Of those infections, 23,000 are fatal.

A recent study by researchers at Duke University showed that rates of drug-resistant E. coli infections have doubled in the past five years at 26 community hospitals in the southeastern United States.

Bacteria Becoming More Resistant

A study published Thursday in The Lancet suggests that between 39 and 90 percent of infections are caused by organisms that have adapted to survive to recommended preventive antibiotic regimens.

Also, 27 percent of infections following chemotherapy for blood cancer are resistant to standard antibiotics.

Researchers with the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy (CDDEP) came to these conclusions by reviewing meta-analyses from 43 years of trials.

They examined the efficacy of using antibiotics as a preventive measure against infections following the most common surgical procedures and blood cancer chemotherapy in the United States.

Using studies and data from the National Health Safety Network, the researchers calculated the number of infections and related deaths by bacteria resistant to current antibiotics.

In one scenario, a 10 percent drop in preventive antibiotics would cause 40,000 additional healthcare-associated infections every year in the United States. Of those, 2,100 would be fatal.

In another scenario in which effectiveness drops 70 percent, there would be an additional 280,000 infections and 15,000 deaths.

Ramanan Laxminarayan, Ph.D., director of the CDDEP, said their study is the first to examine the broader impact of antibiotic resistance in the United States.

“A lot of common surgical procedures and cancer chemotherapy will be virtually impossible if antibiotic resistance is not tackled urgently,” he said in a press release. “Not only is there an immediate need for up-to-date information to establish how antibiotic prophylaxis recommendations should be modified in the face of increasing resistance, but we also need new strategies for the prevention and control of antibiotic resistance at national and international levels.”

New antibiotics are key in fighting back against drug-resistant bacteria, but because they’re profit-losing ventures, few large drug manufacturers are taking up the cause.

According to the CDDEP’s annual report, “The State of the World’s Antibiotics,” there were 37 new antibiotics in the development pipeline for approval in the United States as of December 2014. They were being developed by 32 relatively small companies.

Coordinated Efforts Could Prevent 619,000 Infections

Research has shown that an increase in antibiotic use results in an increase in drug-resistant bacteria.

Knowing this, hospitals across the country are adopting specialized teams in an effort to lower healthcare-associated infection rates as well as developing policies to be judicious with their antibiotic use.

New research shows a coordinated effort is best at tackling these dangerous bugs.

In its latest report, released in August, the CDC found that wide-scale efforts targeting healthcare-associated infections, including antibiotic stewardship programs, could prevent 619,000 infections from CRE, MRSA, C. difficile, and multidrug-resistant Pseudomonas aeruginosa.

A joint effort coordinated by a 10-facility network could result in a 74 percent reduction in these infections over five years and a 55 percent reduction over 15 years in a 102-facility network model.

“With effective action now, more than half a million antibiotic-resistant healthcare-associated infections could be prevented over five years,” the report concludes.