Bug Off! Steering Clear of Superbugs

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We’ve seen it in the headlines and movies. Maybe we’ve known someone who became sick and resistant to antibiotics. Whether it’s as seemingly simple as a skin infection or traumatic as tuberculosis, antibiotic resistance is a serious health problem.

An alarming number of drug-resistant bacteria have emerged over the last several years. The World Health Organization announced that over a dozen antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” are extremely threatening to humans and described antimicrobial resistance as a worldwide health crisis. Each year in the United States, at least 2 million people become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics and at least 23,000 people die as a result of these infections.

Antibiotic resistance is the ability of bacteria to resist the effects of an antibiotic. This occurs when bacteria change in a way that reduces the effectiveness of drugs, chemicals or other agents designed to cure or prevent infections. The bacteria survive and continue to multiply, causing more harm to the body.

Antibiotic resistance is not a new phenomenon; we’ve been warned about it for years. Scientists knew that resistance would be a danger from the early 20th century, when Salvorsan was developed to treat syphilis. Alexander Fleming, recognized for the discovery of penicillin, warned as early as 1945 that antibiotics could lose their effectiveness if not taken properly.

What’s the Antibiotic Harm?
Over the last several years, antibiotic resistance, also known as antimicrobial resistance, or AMR, has become a pressing public health emergency. Illnesses once easily treatable with a dose of penicillin often turn into painful infections that last longer, are more expensive to treat and can spread through a community. In some cases, the antibiotic-resistant infections can lead to disability or death.

We’re hearing the term more often. “Superbug” is a word coined by the media to illustrate what happens when bacteria cannot be killed using multiple antibiotics. Often cited as “multi-drug-resistant” bacteria by the medical field, superbugs aren’t resistant to all antibiotics; the description indicates that the bacteria can’t be treated using two or more drugs.

In late 2016, a woman from Nevada died after she developed an infection in her hip after breaking her leg while traveling in India. The bacterium was resistant to all 26 antibiotics available in the U.S. to treat it. This was considered a rare case, and the term “nightmare superbug” developed because the particular specimen was resistant even to antibiotics used as a last resort to fight the infection.

Superbugs don’t play favorites. Any type of bacteria can turn into a superbug. Taking too many antibiotics, using them inappropriately or not finishing the prescription can leave you open to getting a superbug. The overarching concern from the medical field is that eventually we will run out of effective antibiotics.

While research scientists and the medical field work on the antibiotics issue from their end, we can all do our part to stop germs from spreading.

Use Antibiotics Properly
Take them as prescribed, for the full prescription, and only take one that’s prescribed by your doctor. Wait for test results to determine what bacterium you have and what medication is best for treating it. Don’t take anyone else’s prescription.

Ahem…Wash Your Hands
It’s fundamental to lather up after bathroom breaks and before making food, but washing hands and exposed forearms after coughing, nose blowing and caring for a sick person are important. We should do the same after feeding or petting our pets. And as hard as it might be to avoid touching someone else’s cute baby, don’t!

Buy USDA Certified Organic Food
If possible, eat animal-based foods that are certified organic. Much of the AMR appears to be driven by the agricultural use of antibiotics as growth enhancers.

Get Recommended Vaccines
Although there’s debate about vaccinating, research shows that avoiding vaccinations contributes to the spread of diseases such as measles and whooping cough. Plus, keep your pet’s vaccinations up to date.

Tattoos and Piercings
Be especially careful with tattoos and piercings. Make sure your artist follows universal precautions and provides you with aftercare instructions. An open wound is always vulnerable to infection, so until your tattoo or piercing is completely healed the chance of infection is strong.

Education and awareness are vital in dealing with AMR. Last November, WHO organized World Antibiotic Awareness Week, which was preceded by European Antibiotic Awareness Day. WHO has also called for antibiotics not to be used in healthy animals being raised for food. The FDA and other organizations are partnering to combat AMR by implementing labeling regulations addressing the proper use of antibiotics, promoting public awareness and encouraging the development of new antibiotics.

Bacteria will naturally find ways of resisting the antibiotics developed by humans. That’s why aggressive action is needed now to prevent new resistance as well as resistance that’s already here. ■

Sources: amr.gov.au, cdc.gov, webmd.com, health.harvard.edu and fda.gov.