ATLANTA — For the first time, the government is estimating how many people die from drug-resistant bacteria each year: more than 23,000, or about as many as killed by flu.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the number Monday to spotlight the growing threat of germs that are hard to treat because they've become resistant to drugs.
Finally estimating the problem sends "a very powerful message," said Dr. Helen Boucher, a Tufts University expert and spokeswoman for the Infectious Diseases Society of America. "We're facing a catastrophe."
Antibiotics like penicillin and streptomycin first became widely available in the 1940s, and today dozens are used to kill or suppress the bacteria behind illnesses from strep throat to the plague. The drugs are considered one of the greatest advances in the history of medicine and have saved countless lives.
But as decades have passed, some antibiotics stopped working. Experts say their overuse and misuse have helped make them less effective.
In a new report, the CDC tallied the toll of the 17 most worrisome drug-resistant bacteria. The result: Each year, more than 2 million people develop serious infections and at least 23,000 die.
Of those, the staph infection MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, kills about 11,000, and a new superbug kills about 600. That bacteria withstand treatment with antibiotics called carbapenems — considered one of the last lines of defense against hard-to-treat bugs.
Germs like those have prompted health officials to warn that if the situation gets much worse, it could make doctors reluctant to do surgery or treat cancer patients if antibiotics won't protect their patients from getting infections.
"If we're not careful, the medicine chest will be empty" when doctors need infection-fighting drugs, CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden said.
It's not clear that the problem is uniformly growing worse for all bugs. Some research suggests, for example, that MRSA rates may have plateaued and a separate CDC report released Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine found that serious MRSA infections declined 30 percent between 2005 and 2011 for a total of 80,461 infections in 2011. Most were linked with health care in people who'd recently been hospitalized or received other medical treatment.