What are superbugs?

Superbugs are bacteria and viruses that are resistant to antibiotics and other medications, and they pose a serious threat to our livelihood since they are extremely difficult to eliminate, having rendered most treatments ineffective.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every year in the United States, more than 2 million people become infected with drug-resistant viruses and infections. More than 23,000 people die annually just in the United States alone as a result of these infections.

Pseudomonas, as pictured above, is recorded in WHO’s list of the most dangerous superbugs in the world.

Superbugs are generally strains of common bacteria that have evolved as a result of a mutation which allowed them to survive antibacterial and antiviral treatments. Through natural selection, a process in which weaker organisms die off and stronger ones survive and reproduce, the resistant bacteria mate together, passing on the mutation to their offspring while the other bacteria are killed. The colonies of resistant bacteria grow inside of your body, and once you have stopped taking medication, they strike again and make you sicker than  before. This cycle can repeat until the illness is untreatable. Superbugs also pass from person to person similarly, if not more efficiently than normal viruses and bacteria.

What is the history behind them?

Before the 1930s, antibiotics did not exist. A small illness could have drastic effects. Even a small scratch could lead to a deadly infection, but when a huge medical breakthrough occurred in 1930, the first antibiotic drugs began to gain widespread use. These drugs were called sulfonamides.

From the 1940-1960s, antibiotics began to revolutionize medicine. This is when penicillin started to be used as a “universal drug” that could cure almost any illness. It was a huge discovery for the medical field and was just the start of antibiotic production. Doctors did not put much thought into the bacteria trying to build a resistance to the drugs because they were thinking more about how big of a breakthrough they had made.

However, in the late 1940s doctors began noticing some infections were not responding to penicillin. This meant they would have to produce antibiotics that were stronger, such as methicillin and vancomycin. Although these new antibiotics were successful at first, people started to notice that bacteria was developing a resistance to those drugs too, and that they were leading to serious health problems that people still face today.

Penicillin research in the 1900s.

From the early 1970s to present, superbugs have evolutionized. Bacteria’s adaptations and developments of drug resistance properties are happening much faster than doctors are able to produce new antibiotics, and the more antibiotics that are used, the quicker the bacteria gains resistance.

Why are they an issue?

Some well known illnesses like malaria and tuberculosis are gradually becoming superbugs. According to UNICEF, more than a million people die per year from malaria. Because of this, many efforts have been made to stop mosquitoes from spreading malaria, most using chemicals. These solutions worked at first, but they triggered evolution in the species, and the mosquitoes build up a resistance to the chemicals as well. Mosquitoes, and therefore malaria, are gradually becoming superbugs. On the other hand, drug-resistant tuberculosis was created through mismanagement of treatments and person-to-person transmission. It can usually be cured by a strict, six month drug regimen, but when that regimen is broken, drug resistance develops. Then, the drug-resistant strain of tuberculosis is easily spread, especially in crowded settings.

If nothing is done to stop the growth of superbugs, by 2050, they will be expected to kill someone every three seconds. That is equivalent to 10 million people per year! This would make superbugs the second leading cause of death, causing even more deaths than cancer. Superbugs could cause simple procedures, such as giving birth, treating wounds, and undergoing surgery, life-threatening and extremely dangerous, even when there is no reason for them to be. 

A strain of Staphylococcus aureus bacteria.

Who is involved?

Superbugs involve people all around the world. Every person has bacteria inside of them, and everyone gets sick; it is just part of being human. A person does not have to be sick to be infected either, as a perfectly healthy person could be a carrier of superbugs. One of the biggest, most detrimental problems with superbugs, is that our society would have to revert back to the medical technology from the time before antibiotics were discovered in order to stop superbugs from developing. Another issue is that there would not be as many elective surgeries, because there would be higher risk of death without the antibiotics. As a result, the lifespan of humans will decrease tremendously, and people with disabilities or serious diseases would live a shorter life due to the absence of antibiotics. If nothing is discovered on how to prevent superbugs sometime soon, Earth and all the organisms on it will be affected.

Furthermore, pharmaceutical companies are only worsening the issue. They only care about making money, and they have no concern for the impact that their products will have on the population. These companies make their money by selling medicine, and by making more types, they cater to a wider consumer base, thus allowing them to make more money. The problem is that when more people take greater quantities of medicine, it hastens the process of bacterial evolution, causing bacteria to evolve drug-resistance even faster.

What are solutions to the issue?

Ultraviolet Blood Irradiation, or UBI, is the most effective solution for superbugs. UBI is a therapy that helps prevent surgical infections, speeds up the process of healing wounds, and reduces the need of drugs. So far, scientists that have tested UBI on patients with different diseases have not yet seen the process fail to kill a superbug.

One way people can contribute to preventing superbugs is by using antibiotics properly and only when needed. Nowadays, people are overusing antibiotics and taking them when they do not really need to, which allows the bacteria causing the illness to develop immunity to the drug more easily. Although this will not completely solve the issue, it can at least slow the process down. Also, doctors are beginning to discover how some antibiotics are not as helpful for certain illnesses. This could help with less misuse and consequently, less opportunities for the bacteria to resist.

The best and easiest way to help prevent the spread of superbugs and other bacteria is by washing your hands frequently with soap and water.

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Ashley Todd

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