Superbugs: what risk can they represent in the future?

As time goes on, our antibiotics become less effective at fighting bacteria. What would happen if these microbes kept mutating? We analyze it.

Last update: 01 July, 2022

Superbugs have been present since before the appearance of the coronavirus in 2019. However, their importance often goes unnoticed when evaluating the risk they represent to human health.

We speak of superbugs when we refer to microorganisms that have developed the ability to resist the action of antibiotics. This resistance seems to increase every year and it becomes more difficult to find drugs that eliminate the agents capable of making us sick.

According to some projections, superbugs could soon cause more problems than the coronavirus. As long as no action is taken in this regard, the risk will increase.

What are superbugs?

A bacterium that develops resistance to the antibiotic that could kill it gains a step in evolution. It is something expected to happen and it is what gives rise to these microbes that are more difficult to eradicate.

The problem is that some human, medical and social practices increase the rate at which bacteria become resistant to drugs. This is the phenomenon of antimicrobial resistance and is a topic of interest to infectologists around the world, who are concerned about the consequences.

When a person gets sick from a bacterial infection, the doctor prescribes antibiotics. When taken or applied parenterally, these drugs block the growth or directly kill almost all colonies of microbes. However, some may survive.

The survivors initiate a replication elsewhere, spreading that trait that allowed them to resist the antibiotic. Then a new breed of bacteria appears with better capabilities.

When survivors of the first antibiotic infect a new patient, the doctor prescribes the same antibiotic, but it no longer works. Therefore, the standard treatment becomes inefficient and other alternatives have to be sought.

Bacteria that survive administered antibiotics form new colonies that cause more serious illness.

We have accelerated the process

The indiscriminate use of antibiotics for any pathology and without appropriate medical criteria has led to the acceleration of the appearance of antimicrobial resistance. Superbugs are more prevalent in today’s world.

The data makes it clear. In Europe, around 25,000 people die each year from infections caused by superbugs. In the United States the mortality rate is similar. Tuberculosis is a particular example, since many patients suffer from it due to resistant microorganisms that worsen the prognosis.

The health expense for this problem is enormous. In South Africa, a third of the TB budget is spent fighting strains of bacteria that do not respond to traditional antibiotics. The United States spends up to 15 million dollars on less than 200 tuberculosis patients with resistance.

In many places, antibiotics are overused and misused in people and animals, often given without professional supervision.

~ Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) ~

And the fault lies with the human being. The wrong indications of antibiotics and self-medication are favoring superbugs, with the real possibility of a disaster on a world scale.

What are the most dangerous superbugs?

Most of the superbugs have been identified. New ones arise, but those that have been among patients for a long time have been cataloged by researchers.

In this way, a list prepared by the World Health Organization (WHO) reveals those that deserve special attention:

  • Critical Priority: Acinetobacter baumannii, Pseudomonasaeruginosa, Enterobacteriaceae spp.
  • High Priority: Enterococcus faecium, staphylococcus aureus, Helicobacter pylori, Campylobacter spp., Salmonellae spp., Neisseria gonorrhoeae.
  • Medium priority: Streptococcus pneumoniae, Haemophilus Influenzae, Shigella spp.

All of these bacteria have developed resistance to drugs such as vancomycin, penicillin, and fluoroquinolones. The WHO urges countries and laboratories to invest more resources in developing new antibiotics that can combat them.

New antibiotics developed against the priority pathogens on this list will help reduce deaths from resistant infections worldwide.

~ Evelina Tacconelli, Head of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Tübingen ~
Antibiotics must be prescribed by doctors and patients have to abide by the doses and the time of use so as not to create bacterial resistance.

What can we do to contribute?

From our place, we can help ensure that superbugs do not cause a global disaster greater than the coronavirus. Some simple and conscious actions are essential to reduce risk.

First of all, basic hygiene and prevention guidelines must be followed to reduce the spread of bacteria. Among them it is worth mentioning the following:

  • Wash hands frequently. This simple action prevents us from spreading microorganisms between close contacts.
  • Apply food safety. When handling food, you have to separate the raw from the cooked. Hygiene standards must also be respected in kitchens, both home and restaurant.
  • Self-isolate. The presence of symptoms of an infectious disease, such as cough with fever, should force us to self-isolate until we improve or are treated. This way we avoid infecting and increasing the possibility of superbugs appearing.
  • Respect medical indications. If a professional prescribes amoxicillin 500 mg every 8 hours for 7 days, we must take the pills as prescribed. Ingesting more quantity or for fewer days will only favor antimicrobial resistance.
  • Do not self-medicate. If we have a cold, for example, it is almost certain that the causative agent is viral. Therefore, an antibiotic will not have any effect. On the contrary, it will produce resistance in common bacteria. Therefore, we must consult a professional and not self-medicate, suspecting that this or that drug would do us good.

Do not wait any longer to apply these guidelines. If we are responsible, we can reduce the impact of superbugs and avoid a public health disaster.

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