Superbugs have been growing a health concern for several years as more microbes become resistant to drugs. New-generation antibiotics and antivirals have been constantly filling the gap where older antibiotics and antivirals fall short. Sometimes a cocktail of drugs has been needed. However, it was always known that there will eventually be a time where no single drug cocktail will work and that time is drawing closer.
What are superbugs?
The term superbugs refer to microbes that cause infections in humans but cannot be destroyed by drugs. The term microbes refers to bacteria and protozoa but often viruses are included as well. We also refer to these microbes as germs or bugs. Tradiationally these bugs could be eradicated with drugs like antibiotics or antivirals. However, more of these microbes are now mutating and becoming resistant to drugs.
A superbug is therefore also know as drug-resistant. For example, a common bacteria known as E.coli that lives in the colon can become drug-resistant E.coli. At this point it is referred to as a superbug but now the terms extends further. Some bugs can become resistant to many drugs (multi-drug resistant/MDR) and sometimes to almost every related drug (extreme drug-resistant). The ultimate superbug is one that is resistant to every and any known drug which could previously eradicate it.
Deadly Superbug Bacteria and Viruses
The rise in drug resistant microbes seems to be inextricably linked to the use of drugs that destroy these bugs, namely antibotics for bacteria and antivirals for viruses. It is primarily due to overuse and incorrect use of these drugs.The reason is that viruses and bacteria can mutate very rapidly meaning that their genetic structure can be changed. This allows future generations of bacteria or viruses to develop resistance to drugs.
Superbug viruses are often protrayed in the media as being more deadly and to some extent this may be true. Certain viruses are extremely virulent and easily spread from one person to another. However, this does not mean that superbug bacteria are any less serious. Once an infection sets in and if the body’s immune system cannot counteract the virus or bacteria, then it can lead to a severe and even deadly infection.
An infection is a state where a microbe has established itself within or on living tissue. The microbe then destroys healthy cells and tissue. It also reproduces within the human body to then infect larger areas. Most infections start off localized meaning that it is restricted to one area. However, it can eventually become systemic where the microbe has spread throughout the body and is destroying tissue at various sites simultaneously.
The immune system responds by congregating immune cells at the site of the infection, sometimes engulfing the virus or bacteria, releasing chemicals to destroy the infection and triggering inflammation to bring inmore immune cells as well as limit tissue damage. Specific chemical tags (antibodies) are developed to attach to the microbe and allow potent immune cells to identify the microbe and destroy it quickly.
However, the immune system is not infallible even in a healthy person. If immune responses fail to act rapidly, the infection will continue to spread. There is a greater risk of this spread and deadly complications in people with weakened immune systems, like those with diabetes, HIV and AIDS, the malnourished the elderly and young children.
The symptoms of a superbug infection are largely the same as an infection with any bacteria or virus that is not drug-resistant. The difference lies in that fact the infection and its symptoms do not ease with the use of antibiotics and antivirals that are usually indicated for these infections. Typical infection symptoms include:
- Fever – an elevated body temperature.
- Malaise – a sense of being unwell.
- Fatigue – extreme tiredness.
- Changes in appetite, usually a loss of appetite.
- Heat, redness and swelling of the infected area.
Other localized symptoms depends on the type of microbe and the area that is infected. For example, bacteria or viruses that infect the respiratory tract may cause a runny nose, cough, hoarse voice and difficulty breathing. Similarly bacteria or viruses that infect the gut may cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal cramps.
Danger of Superbugs
Outbreaks of infections are not uncommon. It occurs every year during the flu season due the rapid spread of influenza A. However, this is not usually a serious or deadly outbreak for most people. An outbreak of a superbug can be much more dangerous. It may eventually lead to an epidemic or even a pandemic where large parts of the global population are affected. For example the SARS epidemic of 2003 and the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. HIV/AIDS is another example of an ongoing pandemic.
The problem with superbugs is that it has the potential to kill many people, from tens of thousands to tens of millions, depending on how the outbreak is managed. This type of deadly drug-resistance is not new. It has been a problem in the treatment and management of TB (tuberculosis) for several years. However, this has largely been limited to population groups where HIV co-infection is rampant.
In May 2016, a woman in the United States was identified with an E.coli superbug that does not even respond to last resort antibiotics. E.coli can cause severe infections especially in the gut and urinary tract as well as other locations despite certain strains occurring naturally in the colon. Outbreaks of E.coli infection occur sporadically in the United States due to consuming contaminated food or drinks but can be easily treated with antibiotics.
- Read more about E.coli infection.
- Read more about E.coli diarrhea.
- Read more about STEC/VTEC E.coli.
Prevention of Superbug Infections
Preventing an infection, whether it caused by a superbug or not, is not always possible. The first focus of prevention is to avoid contact with the microbe which means understanding how it is transmitted. This could vary from ingesting contaminated food or water, inhaling respiratory droplets of an infected person who has sneezed or coughed, contact with body fluids, sexual contact and various other methods of transmission.
The other focus of preventing these infections is to ensure that where possible a person is immunized against the specific microbe. However, this depends on the availability of vaccines. Ensuring that the immune system is functioning at its peaks further prevents infections even when a person comes into contact with the microbes. In this regard, proper nutrition, exercise, sufficient sleep and low levels of stress can help boost the immune system.
Many of the same principles for preventing an infection apply across the board. This includes:
- Washing the hands thoroughly with an antiseptic soap or similar disinfectant. It is particularly important after using the toilet, before eating and immediately after making contact with a person who is ill.
- Staying away from people who are infected or using an appropriate face mask that can block microbes before it is inhaled. In severe cases, a biohazard suit may be necessary.
- Avoiding food cooked by an infected person which ultimately means staying away from meals prepared in commercial establishments like restaurants and fast food outlets.
- Consuming water only from reputable sources, boiling water before it is ingested or only using water that has been run through an filtration system.
- Never sharing personal items, from towels and toothbrushes to even utensils and crockery, with a person who is known to be infected.
- Cleaning and possibly even disinfecting fruits and vegetables and thoroughly cooking meat prior to consumption.
- Eliminating or reducing exposure with biological vectors such as insects or animals that carry and/or spread the disease to humans.
Individual measures for preventing a superbug infection is usually issued at the time of an outbreak by local health authorities. However, by practising the preventative measures above an infection may be avoided even before health authorities become aware of it.