Antibiotics are almost 100 years old. For decades we have used these bacteria-battling drugs to control and kill infections that cause illness. But in the last few years, antibiotics have lost some of their power. Some types of bacteria are winning. Antibiotic-resistant superbugs now exist that cannot be beaten with antibiotic treatment. Why is this happening, and what can we do to prevent the problem becoming a public health disaster?
What are Superbugs?
So-called superbugs are in the news. There are many different strains of bacteria called superbugs that are resistant to any type of antibiotic treatment. Every year more than two million people are affected by antibiotic drug resistance and over 23,000 people die from superbug infections, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Different conditions like tuberculosis and staph infections have drug-resistant forms. Probably the most famous type of superbug MRSA, which causes hospital-acquired infections – it is a highly resistant bacteria and kills thousands every year.
When an infection cannot be treated with antibiotics it is naturally much more dangerous, and in some cases is impossible to control.
Antibiotics: Helpful and Harmful
For decades, antibiotics have been the drug of choice for physicians. Antibiotics work against bacterial infections like pneumonia, strep throat, and diarrheal infections but they will not work against viral infections like the common cold. Over the years, antibiotic use has exploded and in many cases antibiotics have been prescribed unnecessarily. It is by using antibiotics in the wrong way that bacteria-resistance bugs can develop.
For example, if you take antibiotics for a bacterial infection they will normally be very helpful. But if you take antibiotics for a virus they will not affect the virus, and instead will destroy some of the good bacteria in your body – the bacteria you need to help fight infection and stay well. In the absence of good bacteria, powerful bacteria have more of a chance to grow and multiply – particularly when you are already sick and your defenses are low. As more and more people take more and more antibiotics, the strains of bacteria that beat their protection get stronger.
Antimicrobial Resistance – More than Just Antibiotics
The problem of superbugs is not limited to antibiotic resistance. In fact, antimicrobial resistance is a wider problem. This is the resistance of bacteria, viruses, or parasites to an antimicrobial drug that should be able to treat the infections caused by this microorganism. For example, antibacterial drugs include antibiotics but also antivirals, antifungal medication, and antimalarials. When the standard treatment becomes ineffective, infections are more likely to spread to other people.
Antimicrobial resistance is an increasingly serious problem and it affects all sections of society. Problems with a gradually increasing resistance to HIV drugs, drug-resistant tuberculosis, and even malaria which is resistant to treatment cause significant concerns throughout the world.
Why is Antimicrobial and Antibiotic Resistance Such a Problem?
It is obviously of great concern when new mechanisms occur which affect our ability to treat infectious diseases – when a common disease that could once be treated with antibiotics or other medication can now no longer be contained, it is a problem for individuals and for society. For individuals, the risk is much greater of adverse outcomes like the need for serious surgery, disability, or death.
These types of superbugs are also highly problematic to control. Infectious disease spreads more easily and more quickly, resulting in greater public health problems. Superbugs also bring up the cost of healthcare as a whole – it is more expensive to treat a disease that is resistant to common treatments.
Beat the Superbugs: What You Can Do
While it is a global problem, there are things you can do to stop the spread of superbugs:
- Prevent infection spreading by frequently washing your hands with soap and water, and using an alcohol-based sanitizer when you cannot wash;
- Discuss with your doctor whether antibiotics really are appropriate for your condition, make sure they understand your symptoms;
- Get vaccinated and make sure all vaccinations are kept up to date, also make sure that children are properly vaccinated;
- Take a course of antibiotics exactly as prescribed and finish the course even if you feel well;
- Do not share your antibiotics with anyone else or save for future illnesses;
- Keep healthy and keep your immune system strong with good, healthy food, exercise, and hygiene.
Antibiotic-resistant superbugs are truly a global challenge. But as medical science continues to advance, so too does the fight against these powerful microorganisms.