An infectious disease that can spread rapidly, potentially cause death and withstand treatment--that's been the plot point for many films, books and TV shows in which mankind suffers the frightening consequences of a viral or bacterial pandemic. But what has been confined to fiction is beginning to take root in reality with the rise of "superbugs."
"Superbug is the term for an infection caused by bacteria that has mutated and become resistant to many antibiotics," says Lawrence Martinelli, MD, FACP, FIDSA, infectious disease physician and Chief Medical Informatics Officer at Covenant Health. "There are several types of these bacterial infections, such as certain strains of staph or tuberculosis, for instance. These superbugs can be very dangerous because they are difficult to treat, and there simply aren't enough new antibiotics being developed to keep up with increasing bacterial resistance."
The numbers are sobering. An estimated 2 million Americans contract antibiotic-resistant infections each year, resulting in 23,000 deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When looking at international numbers, that death rate jumps to 700,000 people per year. That's one reason why the leaders of the United Nations General Assembly agreed to work together on developing plans to stop the spread of superbugs around the world, and the U.N.'s World Health Organization called these diseases "a fundamental threat to human health, development and security."
While governments are moving to take action, there are some things you can do to help lessen your risk of contracting infections, including those caused by superbugs, says Dr. Martinelli:
1. Ask your doctor if you really need antibiotics for an illness. The CDC says 47 million antibiotic prescriptions are prescribed each year in the United States that are unnecessary, and that the overuse of antibiotics has been a key reason for the development of resistant bacteria. "Antibiotics are immensely valuable to modern medicine when used properly," Dr. Martinelli says. “But remember, antibiotics can't cure a virus such as the common cold. Ear and sinus infections as well as bronchitis often resolve on their own. Receiving antibiotics for these conditions can lead to complications such as antibiotic associated diarrhea. In fact, taking antibiotics for a viral illness can make things worse, because the drug is eliminating the body's good bacteria."
Dr. Martinelli adds that you shouldn't press your doctor for a prescription for antibiotics if he doesn't think it's needed; if your doctor wants to prescribe, ask him why he thinks it's the best course of treatment, or if there are other alternatives.
2. Take your medicine correctly. "If antibiotics are prescribed, then it's important to follow the directions exactly and complete the entire course of treatment," Dr. Martinelli says. "If you don't, all the bacteria may not be eliminated from your system and you run the risk of ongoing infection." And don't share your antibiotics with other family members if they get sick--they should see a doctor and have their symptoms checked, as it could be a different type of illness.
3. Be selective about the meat you eat. "Humans aren't the only ones to overuse antibiotics--animals are also commonly given the drugs in their feed to promote growth. This leads to the development of superbugs in our animal populations, which can cross over to us and cause infections" Dr. Martinelli says. While it's up to the government to create standards for antibiotic use with animals, you can support farms that don't use antibiotics for growth by purchasing meat and poultry that is organic or is verified as antibiotic free by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
4. Practice good hygiene. "As with any communicable disease, one of the best forms of prevention is washing hands regularly with soap and warm water, especially after handling raw food, being in contact with a sick person, or visiting a communal space such as the gym or a classroom," Dr. Martinelli says. "It's also wise to keep personal items such as razors, towels and cosmetics to yourself and avoid sharing them with other people. These are habits that, if done on a daily basis, can help prevent infections."
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.