The Battle Against Superbugs in Modern Medicine

The overuse of antibiotics is threatening to plunge us into a post-antibiotic era. Once treatable infections and minor injuries could now kill again with antibiotic resistance at breaking point, new statistics suggest.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), concerned with promoting policies that improve economic and social well-being, predict that 2.4 million people in Europe, North America and Australia will die by 2050 because of once treatable, now antibiotic resistant “superbugs” unless immediate measures are taken. This includes 90,000 deaths in Britain.

In modern medicine, superbugs are infections caused by bacteria which have become resistant to the antibiotics formerly used to treat them. Gone are the days when pneumonia, tuberculosis, blood poisoning, urinary tract infections and gonorrhoea were easily treated by a course of antibiotics: these are just some of the common infections that are becoming difficult and even impossible to treat thanks to the rise of the superbug.

Superbugs are the result of the overuse of antibiotics. Antibiotics were liberally doled out in the past as an expedient alternative to testing exactly what treatment an illness required (or if it even required treatment – antibiotics were often given to those with sore throats, caused by viruses that are untreatable by antibiotics). Combined with the failure of many patients to finish their prescribed course (allowing pathogenic bacteria to form resistance to the low-dosage of antibiotics), it created an environment that cultivated superbugs.

Worse still, antibiotics were introduced to animal feed as a means of decreasing infection and increasing growth in farm animals. This was disastrous, meaning antibiotic-resistant bacteria were introduced into the food chain. One year ago, a strain of E. coli resistant to colistin – a last resort antibiotic, prescribed only when all others fail – was discovered in Chinese pigs. Less than six months later, the same strain of E. coli was found in an individual in the United States.

Most threatening is the prediction by the OECD that resistance to second and third-line antibiotics is to increase by 70% by 2030. Second and third-line antibiotics are back-up antibiotics only prescribed when first-line antibiotics fail, dispensed sparingly to prevent resistance to the few effective antibiotics left. Resistance to these antibiotics spells the end of treatment of infections.

In the shadow of superbugs, modern medicine could regress to that of the 19th century, with cuts and scrapes, as insignificant as they seem to us now, threatening lives. Commonplace medical procedures like hip replacements could become extremely difficult and immune system suppressing treatments such as chemotherapy and organ transplants could become impossible. All the huge strides medicine has made over the past two hundred years in saving people’s lives and freeing society of the shackles of poor health could be entirely undermined by superbugs.

The OECD claims a “five-pronged attack” could be the simple answer to the threat superbugs pose. The suggested attack includes: promotion of better hygiene habits of the public; countering the over-prescription of antibiotics, instead only prescribing them when necessary; rapid testing of patients to determine whether an infection is bacterial or viral, eliminating unnecessary antibiotic prescription; delaying the prescription of antibiotics; and mass media campaigns to inform the public of the issue and how they can help.

By Georgie Wardall

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