What are superbugs?
We normally associate the word super with something that’s good—superman, superfoods, superpowers—but when it comes to superbugs, the end result is anything but good.
Antibiotics have been an important part of modern medicine since the 1930s. Their use has resulted in improved health and increased life-span, and has enabled many of the medical breakthroughs—such as any surgery and neonatal care—that we now take for granted. However, antibiotics have been used for so long, and so widely, around the world that many of the infectious organisms they are designed to eliminate have adapted and become resistant to them.
When bacteria become resistant to different classes of antibiotics, they are often called ‘superbugs’. In the past, most of these superbugs were confined to healthcare settings such as hospitals and nursing homes, where already sick patients in a weakened condition were more susceptible to contracting infections. More recently, superbug infections have started to appear in the wider general population outside of hospitals.
And while superbugs are currently more widespread in developing countries, developed countries are not immune. In 2016, a bacteria resistant to all antibiotics (known as a pan-resistant strain) was detected in the US for the first time. The patient, a 70-year-old woman, was admitted to hospital with an infection caused by carbapenum-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE). While CRE has appeared in the US before, this was the first time it had been resistant to all available antimicrobial drugs, including all aminoglycosides and polymixins—considered last-resort antibiotics—and tigecycline, an antibiotic specifically developed to overcome drug-resistant organisms. With no further treatment options available, the patient rapidly deteriorated, and died.
Pan-resistant strains have already arrived in Australia too.
The creation of superbugs due to antibiotic resistance is a serious risk for global public health, where common infections and minor injuries, which have been treatable for decades, will potentially be life-threatening once again.
Antibiotic resistance is a growing problem. Many countries, including Australia, are putting strategies in place to help combat it―including surveillance, education campaigns, policy change and research funding. At an individual level, we can ensure we only take antibiotics and other antimicrobial drugs when really necessary, follow all instructions correctly, and work to keep ourselves and our families healthy.