The truth about life threatening ‘superbugs’

Superbugs are causing more than 700,000 deaths a year and the rate is on the rise

Racha Adib
Racha Adib - Special to Al Arabiya
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All around the world, drug-resistant infections are on the rise. The so-called “superbugs” are regrettably not science fiction, but the reality of infectious disease today.

Dr. Jihad Nassar, M.D., Otolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery, explains that “superbugs,” also known as MultiDrug Resistant bacteria (MDR), are bacteria that acquired “superpowers” to fight against antibiotics.

“With many years of exposure to antibiotics the bacteria have learned during their evolution how to produce new ways to fight against antibiotics and this is by modifying their own genes, scientifically called mutation” he told Al Arabiya English. The end result is bacteria that became resistant to all known antibiotics which threaten patients’ lives.

Today, Superbugs are causing more than 700,000 deaths a year and the rate is on the rise. “The emergence of superbugs is manmade and there is no question in this matter” states Nassar.

“Although some strains of superbugs were found in the environment, it’s well established that the overuse and misuse of antibiotics led to multidrug resistant bacteria.” Like any living organism, bacteria will eventually develop a resistance to certain threats, antibiotics in this case, as a survival mechanism.

“This has been observed since the emergence of life on this planet” Nassar explains.

Between 2000 and 2014, the number of standard doses of antibiotics used increased by 50 percent. By 2050, drug-resistant infections could cost between 1.1 percent and 3.8 percent of global GDP, according to a report published on September 19 by the World Bank. The United Nations recently called it a “fundamental threat” to global health. On current trends, drug-resistant bugs could kill as many as 10 million a year by 2050.

Nassar reports that one of the most common superbug threats identified is by far methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), which is commonly found in hospitals and can be easily spread by healthy carriers.

“MRSA is usually found in the noses of healthy individuals and this is how it can be easily transmitted to ill people causing severe and deadly infections,” says Nassar. Hence the common practice to screen every patient coming into the hospital for the presence of MRSA in their nares has been adopted.

Most recently, the superbug that has been grasping the attention of public health organizations is E-coli bacteria carrying the MCR-1 gene. The new gene is highly resistance even to Colistin which is “a last resort drug used for lots of severe infections,” explains Nassar, and therefore has a deadly effect.

“The most important advice is prevention” advises Nassar. A lot of infections can be prevented through the consumption of safe food and clean water, good up-to-date immunization and by simple hand washing. “Hand washing has been shown to decrease the risk of infections and minimize the risk of spreading the bugs” he elaborates.

“Last, it’s imperative to control the use of antibiotics not only by patients but also by physicians. Antibiotics should only be prescribed and used when absolutely necessary.” Patients who misuse antibiotics will contribute to the emergence of superbugs that eventually infect their bodies. “It’s very important to use the right antibiotics” he adds.

A new treatment method holds hope, however.

“New research on new drugs called ‘polymers’ has been shown promising results treating animal models infected with superbugs without the use of antibiotics,” says Nassar, and they’re not harmful to healthy cells.

The team, headed by Shu Lam, a 25 year old PhD candidate, created star-shaped polymers that can kill bacteria with multiple pathways. One of these pathways is by ripping apart the bacteria cell wall (see image).

While more research is needed, this discovery may by be the beginning of the end of superbugs.

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