At the moment, it would appear the bacteria are winning. Antibiotic resistance is on the rise globally (in part because much of the public may not really understand how antibiotics work), threatening doctors’ ability to treat bacterial infections and potentially making surgery, chemotherapy and other medical procedures whose safety depends on antibiotic prophylaxis more risky.
Mapping antibiotic resistance — which bacteria are resistant to which drugs, and where — can help clinicians and public health officials decide how best to focus their control efforts. The challenge to date has been compiling resistance data in geographically useful ways.
“The data about antibiotic resistance are fragmented across laboratories and hospitals globally,” says Derek MacFadden, MD, a doctoral student at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health who is working with the HealthMap team in Boston Children’s Computational Health Informatics Program. “Most of the data that are available are very high level, so you can’t get an understanding of regional-level antibiotic resistance.”
This is where ResistanceOpen could come in handy. This new tool, launched by HealthMap team this week during the World Health Organization’s World Antibiotic Awareness Week, provides a window into regional and local antibiotic resistance patterns across the globe.
ResistanceOpen isn’t the first tool researchers have come up with to map resistance. In 2011, a think-tank called the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy launched ResistanceMap, which tracks resistant bugs by species and drug. And the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC, the European Union’s equivalent to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) provides maps of resistance patterns going back to 1998.
However, these other efforts only report out national-level resistance data; the ECDC maps also only cover EU member nations. ResistanceOpen, on the other hand, is set up to provide localized reports anywhere in the world, as long as the data are available.
Go ahead and try it: Type in your location, and scroll to see which antibiotic resistant bugs have been reported in your area.
The tool relies largely on hospital antibiotic resistance reports (a.k.a. antibiograms). Many hospitals produce — and publish online — such reports on an annual basis. “Hospitals use these reports for their own surveillance and clinical use,” explains MacFadden, who is leading the ResistanceOpen development effort along with Boston Children’s chief innovation officer and HealthMap co-founder John Brownstein, PhD. “We saw an opportunity to use that data to create a patchwork map of local antibiotic resistance patterns.”
MacFadden sees ResistanceOpen’s current incarnation as just the beginning. With additional years’ worth of data, for instance, the team could start looking at trends in resistance patterns over time. (Right now the tool only includes data going back to 2012.) They’re also looking for opportunities to make the tool directly useful to medical professionals.
“Say you have a patient being transferred from upstate New York to Boston. Using the tool now, you can very quickly look and see the resistance pattern in the region they’re coming from,” MacFadden says. “That can help you understand what resistant organisms they might carry with them.
“We’re also very eager to make these data even more useful to medical professionals, say by integrating them into apps,” he continued. Additional data will increase the tool’s utility as well. MacFadden notes that the team wants to add more reports from more hospitals to increase ResistanceOpen’s geographic coverage, and also find ways of adding a real-time element.
“Most of the data we use is generate annually,” he says. “But as data sources change, real-time tracking may be a more realizable goal.”
Learn more about World Antibiotic Awareness Week and what you can do about the problem of resistance.