RICHMOND, Va. -- A Richmond woman questioned if she'd survive after battling an infection antibiotic could not treat.
The CDC describes antibiotic resistance as 'one of the biggest public health challenges of our time', and experts worry the COVID pandemic may exacerbate the problem.
"My lungs were under attack and there was nothing we could do for it," said Ella Balasa.
Balasa, a Richmond native, has a background in biology but recently began working in patient advocacy and engagement on a national scale after battling illness since the day she was born.
"I was born with Cystic Fibrosis. And CF is a genetic lung disease, it causes the buildup of thick mucus in the lungs and this mucus attracts bacteria," said Balasa. "And over time these bacteria cause infections that require a lot of antibiotics to treat them. So, growing up I used to be hospitalized a lot."
But in 2019, Balasa said she became sicker than ever before when the antibiotics she was taking stopped working.
"I had been on antibiotics, like I said, throughout my lifetime. Many, many times. The same antibiotics cycled many times over. All kinds of them. But they were losing their effectiveness," said Balasa. "I was very scared for my life honestly. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me."
Balasa wasn't alone in her experience. The CDC reports at least 2.8 million people get an antibiotic-resistant infection each year and more than 35,000 die.
"As we keep using antibiotics to treat infections, sometimes there is overuse of antibiotics, which lead to resistance," said Dr. Saritha Gomadam, Infectious Disease Physician at Bon Secours St. Mary's Hospital. "So, the more organisms that become resistant, we're running out of antibiotics that can effectively cure infections."
Dr. Gomadam said there had been a trend of more resistant bacteria over the years and decades across the globe.
"Oftentimes, when the patient comes in initially, it's really hard to distinguish a bacterial infection from a viral infection. So incorrect antibiotics are started. But once the viral infection is identified, they're usually, the antibiotics are usually stopped," said Gomadam
She said in some cases, that was exacerbated by the pandemic, with data from the CDC showing inpatient antibiotic prescribing peaking in April of 2020, but then stabilizing.
However, preliminary data form the CDC showed outpatient antibiotic prescribing decreased during that time compared to 2019, likely due to changes in healthcare access among other things. Nursing home antibiotic prescribing also saw a decrease from January to June of 2020 compared to 2019. However, the CDC said similar to inpatient settings, data showed an increase in prescribing of antibiotics to treat pneumonia from February to March of 2020 in nursing home settings.
"We really don't want to get into a post-antibiotic era where common infections that could otherwise be managed effectively can no longer be managed because the organisms have become resistant," Dr. Gomadam said.
She said antibiotic stewardship was critical in preventing more resistance.
"So, avoiding antibiotics in certain situations will help us preserve antibiotics when we actually really need them," Dr. Gomadam said.
Balasa took that message international. In April, she worked with the BBC on a segment about antimicrobial resistance which aired in June.
Balasa said she survived her antibiotic-resistant infection thanks to experimental therapy. She now advocates for new therapy options like novel mechanisms of attacking bacteria and infections in the human body.
"That’s what’s important. Getting the word out," Balasa said. "Making people aware of a story like mine."