How superbugs threaten your food and life
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How superbugs threaten your food and life

Indiscriminate misuse and abuse of antibiotics has led to disease-causing bacteria developing hardier, resilient strains that survive antibiotics prescribed to kill them. These superbugs force clinicians to use increasingly stronger medicines in more lethal doses to destroy them.

health and fitness Updated: Oct 05, 2014 12:35 IST
Sanchita Sharma
Sanchita Sharma
Hindustan Times

In April, the World Health Organisation declared that the problem "threatens the achievements of modern medicine." In May, the World Health Assembly commissioned the WHO to deliver a global action plan on it. In June, the British public voted to dedicate a government-sponsored £10 million Longitude Prize to solve this impending crisis.

And in September, the US President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology released a report on the problem and linked it to President Barack Obama's executive order to the National Security Council to develop a national action plan to fight it by February 2015.

This worrying problem causing as much global concern as terrorism is antibiotic resistance. Antibiotics, the wonder drugs that made surgery safe and stopped disease outbreaks by preventing and curing all infections four decades ago, can no longer do so.

Also read: Chicken could make you resistant to antibiotics

Indiscriminate misuse, overuse and abuse of antibiotics has led to disease-causing bacteria developing hardier, resilient strains that survive antibiotics prescribed to kill them. These superbugs multiply and become unstoppable over time, forcing clinicians to use increasingly stronger medicines in more lethal doses to destroy them.

At least some clinical isolates of many bacterial species that cause Tuberculosis, sepsis, diarrhoea, gonorrhoea and pneumonia, among others, are now resistant to most antibiotics. These superbug strains often thrive in hospitals, where controlling infection post-surgery and among critically ill-patients has become - bigger threat to life and disease management than medical skill.

Superbug era

A apocalyptic post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries kill millions, is closer than most of us realise, warn antibiotic-resistance experts Carl Nathan and Otto Cars in the New England Journal of Medicine ( this week.

It wasn't as if the world wasn't warned, they say. Alexander Fleming and Howard Walter Florey sounded the first warning about superbugs when they accepted the 1945 Nobel Prize for the discovery of penicillin. Scientists have expounded the warning ever since, but it is only now that governments are giving it the attention it deserves.

Also read: Antibiotic resistant superbug found at AMU

So, how these superbugs become so indomitable? It’s people like us, who pop antibiotics at the first sign of fever for as long as a strip lasts or use leftover medication from the last time we fell ill. Equally responsible are doctors who want quick results and prescribe antibiotics even when they are not needed. They're usually not.

Then, there are antibiotics found in food. Livestock farmers add them to animal feed to make them grow bigger and faster (called increasing "feed efficiency" to make animals gain more weight per unit of food). While there's little data for India, the US Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) annual report ( released on Thursday said antibiotics sold to farmers and ranchers for use in animals raised for meat grew by 16% from 2009 to 2012, raising fresh fears of antibiotic resistance.

Antibiotics are also present in fruits, vegetables and grain. Plants absorb antibiotics that seep into the soil and water, with crops that grow underground -- potatoes, onions, carrots, to name a few -- absorbing more.

War against infection

Over the past decade, drug research saw a shift from antibiotic development to the more profitable drugs for lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and asthma, which have to be taken in increasing doses for life. But the past five years have seen increasing collaborations between governments, non-profit agencies and industry partners to develop new antibiotics. This year alone, three new drugs -- Dalbavancin in May, tedizolid phosphate in June, and oritavancin in August -- to fight acute bacterial skin infections caused by MRSA got approved.

It's impossible to avoid bacteria, so the next best thing to do is protect ourselves from infection the best we can. In most cases, simple solutions are the best. Basic hygiene works better than drugs. Wash your hands with soap and water, especially when you’ve been in a public place, before touching food and after handling raw meat or poultry. This is as effective as expensive antibacterial soaps and wipes. And above all, don't visit sick friends and family in hospitals unless you are needed. Ill persons have weakened immunity and your presence is more likely to infect them than cheer them up.

There are enough new and lethal infections making headlines without our contributing to their spread. We can, however, help contain superbugs in our own small way by using antibiotics as and when prescribed and washing up frequently with soap and water to stay safe.

Top 15 superbugs and diseases resistant to antibiotics

Acinetobacter causes pneumonia and bloodstream infections among critically-ill patients.

2. Anthrax is caused by Bacillus anthracis, a bacterium that forms spores that infect humans from infected animals or when used as a bioterrorism anthrax weapon.

3. Campylobacter cause diarrhoea (often bloody), fever, and abdominal cramps, and sometimes serious complications such as temporary paralysis.

4. Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE) bacteria cause bloodstream infections leading to multi-organ failure. CRE have become resistant to all or nearly all the antibiotics we have today and kills almost half of hospital patients it infects.

5. Neisseria gonorrhoeae cause gonorrhoea, a painful sexually transmitted disease that can result in discharge and inflammation at the urethra, cervix, pharynx, or rectum.

6. Group B Streptococcus (GBS) cause several illnesseses, ranging from bloodstream infections (sepsis) and pneumonia to meningitis and skin infections.

7. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) causes a range of illnesses, from skin and wound infections to pneumonia and bloodstream infections that can cause sepsis and death. Staph bacteria, including MRSA, are one of the most common causes of hospital infections.

8. Neisseria meningitidis is a leading causes of bacterial meningitis in children and young adults. Meningitis caused by this bacterium is known as meningococcal disease.

9. Non-typhoidal Salmonella (serotypes other than Typhi, Paratyphi A, Paratyphi B, and Paratyphi C) usually causes diarrhoea (sometimes bloody), fever, and abdominal cramps. Some infections spread to the blood and can have life-threatening complications.

10. Shigella usually causes diarrhoea, fever, and abdominal pain, sometimes causing serious complications such as reactive arthritis.

11. Streptococcus pneumoniae (S. pneumoniae, or pneumococcus) is the leading cause of bacterial pneumonia, meningitis, bloodstream infections and ear and sinus infections.

12. Tuberculosis (TB) is caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium tuberculosis (M. tuberculosis), which is increasingly becoming Extensively Drug-Resistant (XDR) to most TB drugs, largely because of incomplete or wrong treatment, short drug supply, and lack of drugs.

13.Salmonella serotype Typhi causes typhoid, a potentially life-threatening disease that causes high fever, abdominal pain, and headache. Typhoid fever can lead to bowel perforation, shock, and death.

14. Vancomycin-resistant Enterococci (VRE) cause a range of illnesses in hospital patients, including bloodstream infections, surgical site infections, and urinary tract infections.

15. Vancomycin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus (VRSA) enters the body through catheters, ventilators or surgical procedures and causes life-threatening infection as it is resistant to most antibiotics.

(Source: Centers for Disease Control )

First Published: Oct 05, 2014 10:05 IST