Rise of the Superbugs

Overuse and misuse of antibiotics is giving rise to new incidents of infectious diseases like tuberculosis and malaria that were once thought to be under control. The World Health Organization has adopted the theme “Combat Drug Resistance” to raise awareness and WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan says in a related release: “In the absence of urgent corrective and protective actions, the world is heading towards a post-antibiotic era, in which many common infections will no longer have a cure and, once again, kill unabated.”

The problem is that microorganisms build up resistance to antibiotics over time, eventually making the drugs useless. That’s clearly happening across the globe, giving rise to new levels of diseases like tuberculosis. At least 440,000 new cases of multidrug resistant tuberculosis were reported in 69 countries last year. In addition, malaria parasites have grown resistant to treatment, as have viruses associated with HIV infections.

With increasing globalization and the ease of cross-continental travel, these new, drug-resistant diseases can quickly spread and spark a serious global health catastrophe. A Reuters article on the subject noted that a gene that turns bugs into antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” known as NDM 1 was first discovered in water-borne bacteria in New Delhi, India, and has since spread around the world. Meanwhile, the article reports: “MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, is a superbug that alone is estimated to kill 19,000 people each year in the United States,” a number that is more than those who die from HIV and AIDS.

Part of the WHO’s strategy for reducing the misuse of antibiotics is developing effective vaccines against these diseases, working with industry to create new drugs (less than 5% of drugs in the research and development pipeline are antibiotic drugs, according to the agency) and gaining the collaboration of governments and medical professionals to be more judicious in antibiotic prescriptions.

But it’s not just human antibiotic administration that poses a challenge. The WHO writes that: “Approximately half of current antibiotic production is used in agriculture, to promote growth and prevent disease as well as to treat sick animals. With such massive use, those drug resistant microbes generated in animals can be later transferred to humans.”