Have superbugs turned the tide?
Drug-resistant bacteria – also called superbugs – seem to be gaining ground, and health care officials are sounding the alarm.
Consider these troubling recent developments:
- A Nevada woman died last fall from an infection caused by a bacterium that was able to survive every antibiotic available to U.S. physicians. She apparently became infected after breaking a leg and being hospitalized in India.
- More U.S. children than ever are becoming infected by bacteria that are resistant to multiple drugs, causing lengthier hospital stays.
- The World Health Organization recently published a list of 12 top-priority bacteria “for which new antibiotics are urgently needed.”
- Even the United Nations General Assembly has conducted a “high-level meeting on antimcrobial resistance,” calling for a “strong, national, regional and international political commitment” to fighting drug-resistant germs.
Overprescribing antibiotics has put too many into circulation, giving bacteria more opportunities to adapt. Health officials are urging health care providers to give antibiotics only when they are certain their patients have bacteria-caused illnesses, and then only in amounts required to overcome them.
The trouble with superbugsWhen antibiotics and similar drugs were developed to treat illnesses caused by infectious disease, humankind gained the upper hand. Antibiotics have saved tens of millions of lives. Before the drugs, pneumonia and tuberculosis were leading causes of death, strep throat could be fatal and ear infections could spread to the brain, causing severe complications.
But in the 70 or so years since health care providers started deploying antibiotics widely, bacteria have responded with adaptations of their own. As a result, the drugs are less effective.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says drug-resistant bacteria sicken at least 2 million Americans a year, killing about 23,000 of them.
What researchers are doing
Around the world, researchers are working to develop improved treatments. When the WHO issued its list of 12 top-priority bacteria, Marie-Paule Kieny, WHO's assistant director-general for health systems and innovation, declared: "Antibiotic resistance is growing, and we are fast running out of treatment options. If we leave it to market forces alone, the new antibiotics we most urgently need are not going to be developed in time."
The National Institutes of Health is offering rewards to researchers working to develop alternatives to traditional antibiotics. Promising developments are being reported around the world, including:
- Lab tests of the berries from the Brazilian peppertree as an alternative treatment for bacterial infection
- Identification of a protein that helps bacteria develop resistance to drugs
- Discovery of an antibiotic that can get through barriers that bacteria erect to prevent destruction
What you can do
The CDC recommends these steps to stay healthy:
- Take precautions to avoid becoming infected. This means, for example, washing your hands regularly to stop the spread of diarrheal and respiratory illnesses.
- Make sure you’re up to date on your vaccines, especially when you’re traveling to an area where diseases such as measles, tetanus and diphtheria aren’t under control. You can find the recommended immunization schedules here.
- Bacteria like salmonella live in food. You can help prevent food-borne infections by keeping your hands and food surfaces clean, avoiding cross-contaminating foods, cooking food to the right temperature and making sure your refrigerator chills to lower than 40 degrees.
- Keep your water safe by drinking only from sources that have been safely stored and treated.
- Avoid spreading sexually transmitted diseases. Whether you abstain, receive vaccinations for hepatitis B and HPV or remain monogamous, avoid putting yourself and others at risk.