Superbug's path to dominate the world
Projected to kill more people than cancer by 2050, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or superbugs, have begun appearing in hospitals and nursing homes, which contain people with weakened immune systems who are most vulnerable to infections.
Any bacteria can become a superbug, but most superbugs are strains of highly infectious bacteria. They come into contact with antibiotics most often so evolution rewards them more for developing resistance, so the antibiotic-resistant strains reproduce more, eventually taking over the whole population. Furthermore, unlike many other infectious diseases, superbugs can be extremely deadly; some strains have a mortality rate over 50 percent, even higher than Ebola.
The most common superbugs come from bacteria that infect both humans and livestock. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, a superbug that single-handedly causes 20,000 deaths per year, originated from pigs and later evolved to infect humans. In fact, livestock workers are over ten times more to contract MRSA than the general populace.
“Bacteria have shown an amazing ability to jump across species to colonize and cause infections,” Felicia Wu, a professor at Michigan State explains. “Livestock-associated MRSA is a zoonotic disease, a disease that can transmit between animals and humans. Such diseases can have devastating consequences for human health.”
The most crucial step to slowing the spread of superbugs is to reduce the usage of antibiotics. Without the interference of antibiotics, the evolutionary advantage superbugs have is rendered null, and they will be slowly outcompeted by other strains of bacteria. However, there are times when antibiotics must be used. For example, hospitals and nursing homes need to use antibiotics to protect patients with weakened immune systems. Ironically, this makes these places a breeding ground for superbugs; studies have discovered that 14 percent of hospital patients and 64 percent of nursing home residents have superbugs on their skin. “Once the bacteria get a hold in an environment, they are really, really hard to get rid of,” Wu said.
Furthermore, there are massive economic consequences for reducing the use of antibiotics. The majority of antibiotics are not used on humans but instead used on livestock who live in crowded pens. If animals no longer receive antibiotics, infectious diseases will slaughter them in droves, causing massive losses to farmers. This raises an ethical question; is it right to let these animals die when they could easily be saved?
Another solution is to develop new types of antibiotics. However, this solution is a temporary one; superbugs will simply have to evolve one more time.
The most promising solution relies on using bacteriophages to eliminate superbugs. A bacteriophage, more often referred to as a phage, is a virus that preys on bacteria. Unlike antibiotics, phages are the natural predators of bacteria, so they cannot develop phage resistance; a strain of bacteria becoming phage resistant is about as likely as a mouse becoming cat resistant. Furthermore only target specific types of bacteria, so they are almost always safe to inject into humans. Unfortunately, this trait discourages large pharmaceutical companies from researching phages. As they can only cure one type of disease, phages have a much smaller market than antibiotics, making them less profitable to develop.
Given the lethal potential of the superbugs, everyone should help prevent their spread. Aside from hand washing and not eating off the floor, it is crucial to only use antibiotics after consulting a doctor; anyone who does otherwise is turning their body and surroundings into a superbug breeding ground.