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Published on November 28th, 2012 | by Yellow Magpie

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Superbugs: A Lesson In Antibiotics And Human Foolishness

Superbugs Antibiotics Photo By Don Stalons

There is a growing problem that is becoming of increasing concern to those in the medical industry. More and more antibiotic-resistant bacteria, commonly called Superbugs, are emerging. Whereas before, when many types of antibiotics could be used to treat particular infections, there are now cases where only one or two will kill the micro-organisms.

Bacteria are growing immune to antibiotics not because they are so smart but because our behaviour is very foolish. We are living on the precipice of a future era in which we may have no protection from mass outbreaks of bacterial infections. Coupled to this, the globalised world in which we live in makes such a scenario all the more dangerous and frightening.

As progressively larger numbers of people make the transition from rural to urban living this situation is likely to become increasingly problematic.

An Impending Health Threat

The health threat posed by antibiotic resistance comes down to mainly two factors. The dangers presented by the infectious diseases themselves and the borderless world of the globalised age.

Typhoid fever and Tuberculosis are both very serious diseases which are showing increasing resistance to drug treatment. In fact, in 2003 a completely resistant form of tuberculosis was discovered in Italy. Tuberculosis has killed an estimated 100 million people and in 2010 killed roughly one and a half million people.

Superbugs A Girl Receiving A Typhoid Inoculation In 1943

Each year it is thought 22 million cases of typhoid fever arise with 216,000 reported deaths. Antibiotic resistant bacteria is a major concern because of their extremely short reproductive cycles.

Unlike other organisms, evolution occurs in bacteria in almost real-time. Sub-lethal doses of antibiotics only serve to cause bacteria to quickly adapt and become resistant to these forms of treatment.

In other cases, where the infection cannot be treated through the use of traditional antibiotics older, more toxic antibiotics are sometimes used. The side-effects of using such medication can vary from being severe to lethal. The damage inflicted by these types of interventions may outweigh their benefits. In some cases, the necessary use of these antibiotics can lead to organ failure and death.

How Superbugs Are Becoming Immune?

Scientists for years have noted the increasing level of resistance that bacteria are displaying but it has only been relatively recently that they have observed the manner in which this resistance is being developed. Under laboratory test conditions bacteria are exposed to low concentrations of antibiotics.

Despite much of the bacteria being initially killed, some develop resistance to these concentrations and reproduce successfully. As the concentrations are increased the process begins again much of the bacteria is killed but a small portion becomes immune. Eventually the bacteria becomes completely resistant to the antibiotic.

Understanding Bacteria And Why Something So Small Is Dangerous

In defiance of their tiny size, measuring just a few micrometres in length (there are one thousand micrometres in a single millimetre), bacteria can be lethal. Acting on its own bacteria pose no treat. The problem is that they do not act on their own.

During the 1960’s it was discovered that bacteria communicate with one another. This has lead to a greater understanding of bacteria. It is now believed that pathogenic bacteria wait until they have gathered sufficient numbers before they attack the host and cause infection.

Superbugs Bacteriophage Attacking Bacteria Photo By Dr. Graham Beards

It is their multitude that causes severe problems for people. Bacteria use quorum sensing to ascertain their number. Each bacteria sends out signalling molecules called auto-inducers. The concentration of the auto-inducers lets the bacteria know if they have a high enough population to act. In the case of pathogenic bacteria once their numbers are large enough they attack the host.

Scientists such as Professor Bonnie Bassler are trying to develop methods that will interrupt bacteria’s communicative process and prevent lethal strains from attacking people.

The Agricultural Problem

Farming has long been identified as an area of concern when it comes to the creation of superbugs. Pumping antibiotics into farm animal feed to increase animal growth continues to introduce vast quantities of antibiotics into the environment providing the perfect conditions for bacteria to become antibiotic resistant.

Even though this practice has now being outlawed in European Union countries since 2006 it is still the norm in the United States and elsewhere.

Appearing on the BBC’s Horizon programme, Professor Lance Price who works at George Washington University’s department of Environmental and Occupational Health traced a newly emerged strain of MRSA to pig farms in the United States. Price and his team investigated further and discovered that it was initially people who transferred the non-resistant staphylococcus aureus strain to the pigs.

Professor Price maintains that the huge abundance of antibiotics, over 13 thousand tonnes per year, in animal feed provided the perfect opportunity for the harmless variant of the bacteria to transform into its lethal variant. The infected pigs then in turn passed on MRSA to the farm workers.

The EU is now seeking to ban the prophylactic use of antibiotics in animal feeds entirely.

The Doctor/Patient Problem

It is a long-held criticism of the medical profession that doctors are far too liberal in their administering of antibiotic prescriptions. Too many ailments are been treated with antibiotics that would normally be dealt with in due time by the immune system.

There are even some medical professionals that prescribe antibiotics for the common cold and flues despite the fact that such medication has no effect on viruses.

Superbugs Antibiotics Misuse Warning

Nevertheless, it isn’t just doctors who are at fault. Patients have a duty to finish off their full course of antibiotics in order to kill the bacterial infections. Not taking a full course of antibiotics means that the bacteria can survive and enter the environment after being exposed to sub-lethal dosages. These bacteria are in a prime position to develop immunity and create the next superbug.

The Unregulated Off-The-Shelf Problem

Asian countries such as India, where antibiotics are readily available off-the-shelf without prescription, play a major role in creating superbugs. People take extremely cheap antibiotics which are frequently out of date for any type of complaint. Some may even take antibiotics for headaches. Devoid of instructions it is very difficult for people who have not been educated to use antibiotics properly. In some cases it is even possible to purchase as few as one antibiotic tablet exposing bacteria to sub-lethal doses once again allowing them to develop resistance.

Needless to say it doesn’t come as too surprising that places such as India have a serious problem when it comes to antibiotic resistant bacteria.

In Search Of New Antibiotics

Scientific researchers are on the lookout for undiscovered types of microbes to obtain new types of antibiotics. One place that has been providing great returns is underground caverns. Starved of light and inhabiting a world in which nutrients are at a premium these underground grottos are fertile harvesting grounds for new antibiotics.

In such trying conditions bacteria have evolved to be either highly defensive or aggressive. It is these aggressive bacteria that are providing new antibiotics capable of killing previously resistant strains. Just one bacteria alone has resulted in over thirty different types of antibiotics.

Using Virus To Kill Bacterial Infections

One of nature’s ways of controlling bacteria numbers is through the bacteria-eating virus called the bacteriophage. Attempts have been made to harness viruses to destroy antibiotic resistant superbugs. Already bacteria phage have been used in the food industry to destroy unwanted bacteria in dairy and meat products.

Superbugs Bacteriophage Virus

However, as of now, there is no publicly available product that can destroy antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria.

Effective Regulating The Antibiotic Industry

Heavy regulation of the entire antibiotic industry together with an informed public is one of the main methods that can be utilised to lessen the effects of this impending health threat. Removing antibiotics from animal feeds, more prudent regulation of the agriculture sector and banning antibiotics in cleaning products will reduce the amount of antibiotics in the environment.

Educating and re-educating doctors and medical professionals on the abuse of antibiotics as well as public awareness campaigns should help to alleviate the problem further.

Future Technology Identifying Superbugs At Airports

In the future, it will be easier for authorities to identity people harbouring antibiotic-resistant bacteria at airports using scanning devices which will operate at atomic and molecular resolutions. People carrying identifiable and unidentifiable bacteria that are deemed hazardous could be given medical treatment and temporarily quarantined from the general population.

Superbugs Current Airport Security Photo By Ralf Roletschek

Nonetheless, we do not need to rely on speculative technology to deal with the current problem. We just have to act now.

Further Reading

Visit the BBC’s website for more information on their Horizon programme.

You might also wish to check out Yellow Magpie’s for Why Animal Extinction Is Costing Us Dearly, The Hidden Dangers Of Cannabis and The Low-Fat Food Scam: How To Get Fat And Be Unhealthy.

 


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