Superbugs: What Are They and How Can They Be Stopped?
Published: 28 January 2020
Published: 28 January 2020
A superbug refers to a microorganism that has adapted after being exposed to antibiotics. The proper terminology for this is a multiresistant bacterium; the term ‘superbug’ has been popularised by the media.
Resistance to an antibiotic occurs when a microorganism grows in the presence of a concentration of antibiotic which would usually be sufficient to inhibit or kill organisms of the same species (Sabtu et al. 2015).
The severity of a superbug depends on the number of different antibiotics the microorganism is resistant to, with some being resistant to one or two, and others, resistant to multiple drugs (IMB 2017).
In 2016, a case of an infection caused by a ‘pan-resistant’ (resistant to all antibiotics) strain of bacteria was detected in the US for the first time, resulting in the death of a woman in her 70s. According to current research, Australia should anticipate the event of ‘pan-resistant’ bacteria in the near future (Bowden 2017).
It is estimated that antibiotic-resistant bacteria are responsible for more than 700,000 deaths worldwide, every year. A review by the UK government on antimicrobial resistance foresaw the number rising to 10 million by 2050 (IMB 2017).
A major risk of superbugs is that if they spread, we could reach the point where it becomes too dangerous to perform routine surgeries such as c-sections and transplants due to the risks presented by infection (IMB 2017).
The major cause of drug resistance is the overuse of antibiotics.
Almost all species of bacteria have developed some degree of resistance since the invention of antibiotics in the 1930s, but most are still sensitive to numerous classes of agents (Bowden 2017).
A smaller subgroup of bacteria (known as multiresistant strains) are only susceptible to a very limited range of antibiotics (Bowden 2017).
As antibiotics often cause unwanted side effects, it is not uncommon to be advised to change antibiotics more than once in the treatment of severe infection. If a person acquires a multi-strain bacterium, it is only a matter of time before treatment options become limited (Bowden 2017).
Research has shown that just one course of antibiotics can affect the level of drug-resistant bugs in a person’s body. It can also contribute to the wider issue of antibiotic-resistant disease in the community (ABC Health and Wellbeing 2017).
Antibiotic-resistant strains are not exclusive to developing countries. Brazil, Greece and South Africa have major problems with superbugs.
There is a strong correlation between countries with high incidents of antibiotic-resistant strains and countries where antibiotics are available over the counter (IMB 2017).
Traditionally, hospitals have been known to be the breeding site of the most serious infections, however, superbug infections are developing outside of hospital environments at an increasing rate (IMB 2017).
In the relatively recent event of global travel, the spread is only being exacerbated.
Keep in mind that while antibiotic resistance is a catalyst for superbug growth, the impact of a germ is not only dependant on whether there is an effective antibiotic available, but by the virulence of the organism, the volume the person is exposed to and the health of their immune system (Bowden 2017).
Cases in which people die from antibiotic-resistant infections are still relatively rare, particularly in Australia where antibiotics are not available over the counter (IMB 2017). This aside, it should still be considered a serious threat.
Clinical microbiologist Deborah Williamson argues along with other infectious disease experts that there is a current ‘black hole in surveillance’ in antibiotic resistance in Australia (Branley and Lloyd 2019).
Research emerging from the Doherty Institute identify the following microorganisms as being of primary concern:
(Branley and Lloyd 2019, Bowden 2017)
The following efforts are being trialled or have been suggested with the intention of stopping superbugs:
A vital way to protect one’s self from superbugs is to follow recommended infection control procedures, such as:
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