Bacteria are found everywhere! They’re in the soil, water, air, our homes, food, and even us. While most bacteria are good, many are also responsible for making us sick – sometimes fatally. The discovery of penicillin in 1928 by Alexander Fleming hailed a victory in our war against bacterial infections. Over 100 drugs were subsequently discovered in the years that followed to conquer bacterial infections, marking a golden age for antibiotics in their ability to save lives. However, a turn for the worst slowly crept upon us due to the widespread misuse of antibiotics. The bacteria fought back… leading to the rise of superbugs.
Superbugs refer to antibiotic-resistant bacteria – ‘bugs’ that are no longer affected by antibiotics. The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) claims all bacterial infections are slowly becoming antibiotic-resistant superbugs. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 700,000 people die every year due to superbug infections and this number is growing. By the year 2050, the death toll will topple cancer mortality with 10 million deaths per year.
I know, it’s quite a scary forecast. 😐
So, how exactly are superbugs formed? By evolution: through mutation and gene transfer. (Don’t worry! I’m about to explain what this means). Simply put, the genetics of a bacteria can change at a much quicker rate than those of humans and there are two ways this happens. First, through a spontaneous mutation that better equips the bacteria to fight off antibiotics and second, through gene transfer, where bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics share their resistant gene via a “bridge” that connects them to other bacterial cells (this is called ‘bacterial conjugation’). Viruses can also pass resistant genes from one bacterium to another.
Human behaviour itself led to the birth of superbugs due to widespread underuse, overuse, and altogether misuse of antibiotics for human health, livestock, and agriculture. When antibiotics are underused (i.e. the full course is cut short), some bacteria will survive, evolve into superbugs, multiply, and thrive to prolong the infection and worsen the sickness. When overused (i.e. used when unneeded), good bacteria can be killed or altered, giving way for resistant strains – superbugs – to take their place. Overall, the more we use antibiotics, the more resistant we become to their effects.
Superbugs can be spread through a variety of paths, including food, air, water, and contact with infected animals (including animal food products) or people. Some of today’s major superbugs include: tuberculosis, gonorrhea, MRSA, salmonella, and E. coli.
In this war between humans and superbugs, are we doomed? The quick answer is no, not yet. You can rest assured that there is still some hope. While researchers play their part in this fight, there are a few steps that we can take as well to ensure our safety and well-being.