“Superbug” is a media-coined term for bacteria that cannot be killed, even by the use of multiple different antibiotics – and yes, that is as scary as it sounds. We live in a world which has become complacent with modern medicine and the idea that there is a fix for all our ailments – and now that complacency is its own downfall. For years, antibiotics have been handed out like sweets at the earliest onset of an infection (even if it may not require them at all) – we’ve even recklessly used them to promote growth of livestock – and the results of this liberal usage are starting to look catastrophic. Antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria are popping up at an unprecedented rate – and the scientific community is woefully unprepared for the fallout. But why is this happening, what could it mean, and should we already be panicking?
How Bacteria Becomes a Superbug
Within a large population of bacteria, some cells may be unaffected by an antibiotic, due to natural resistance, chance mutations, or otherwise being missed somehow by the drug. Therefore, when a patient is treated using an antibiotic, these few bacteria survive and reproduce, passing their mutations and resistance on and creating a new colony of antibiotic resistant bacteria. Even worse, “bacteriophage” viruses can transfer the drug-resistance between closely related bacteria, and resistant colonies can spread in as little as 20 minutes.
This is why it is so vitally important to finish the course of antibiotics when you are prescribed them, even if you feel better – because it’s imperative to ensure the entire bacteria colony is wiped out. In hospitals and on farms, resistant bacteria can spread incredibly quickly – and the water supply then exposes the bacteria to the larger community, potentially creating an epidemic.
It may sound like some kind of apocalyptic scaremongering, but the truth is, it’s already happening – in the USA, around 2 million people get sick from superbugs every year, and at least 23,000 of these Americans die.
So how do we treat these superbugs? Well, we try different antibiotics, until we find one that works (or, of course, the patient dies from the disease) – but when you consider that a new antibiotic has not been discovered for over 25 years, you’ll begin to realise the scale of the impending catastrophe. The treatment options for resistant bacteria are running out – and treatments such as chemotherapy and organ transplants which rely on the use of antibiotics to support patients when their immune systems are compromised may now become impossible to perform because of this. How this could affect charitable organisations like our own Tej Kohli Cornea Foundation is yet to be seen.
Globally, 700,000 a year die from superbugs, but by 2050, it is predicted that the yearly death toll will soar to ten million, making superbugs a bigger killer than cancer – and that’s not even taking into account the so-called “stealth technology” that some of these bacteria carry, meaning our diagnostics simply aren’t sensitive enough to detect that they are, in fact, untreatable, so they slip under the radar and go unrecorded.
So what can be done about it? Currently, very little. There are no magic cures lined up to take their place – but for your part, don’t take antibiotics unless your body has failed to fight off an infection unaided, and if you do take them, be absolutely sure to finish the entire course, whether you begin to feel better or not. For our part, the Tej Kohli Foundation has always taken a keen interest in investing in progressive medicines and technologies – so watch this space.