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The Rising Superbugs

By: Francisco J. Rojas, Ph.D.


A recent survey indicates that only half of Americans know that antibiotics kill bacteria but not viruses. The finding is in line with studies showing that one in four Americans visiting their health care providers complaining of a cold, expect their provider to prescribe them an antibiotic, falsely believing that the antibiotic will help them recover more quickly from the virus.

These false beliefs occur across countries and have contributed to a dangerous rise in antibiotic use. Worldwide sales of antibiotics by pharmacies and hospitals increased 36 percent between 2000 and 2010. But Americans are by far the highest per capita consumers. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 50 percent of all antibiotics prescribed in the United States are not warranted.

The overuse of antibiotics in medicine combined with the increasing use of antibiotics to grow livestock has led to the evolution of “superbugs”, lethal bacteria that are resistant to most antibiotics. This overuse most likely kills beneficial bacteria living in our guts and other parts of our bodies that protect us from infection. The drug-resistant bacteria then are more likely to take over and put us at high risk for resistant infections. These superbugs can spread to other people and in places such as the home, work or hospitals.

The loss of antibiotic effectiveness makes it more difficult to fight common infections, such as urinary tract infections and pneumonia. It also affects patients who often depend on antibiotics to recover from surgery, cancer therapy and other procedures. According to the CDC, each year at least 2 million Americans fight serious bacterial infections that are resistant to one or more antibiotics, and at least 23,000 die annually as a direct result of those infections.

How to combat the superbug threat? Changing incorrect public beliefs is essential. Many people still do not see antibiotic resistance as a personally relevant issue that presents risks to their health and the health of others. Health care providers are under huge pressure from patients to provide antibiotics for treatment of viral infections. In fact, research shows that a health care provider’s perceptions of patient expectations are a predictor of over-prescribing. The solution should be in advancing studies to better understand public behaviors and beliefs, and implementing public education campaigns that use effective communication and persuasion strategies.

But more than public education is needed. The widespread use of antibiotics in agriculture must be ended; clean water systems and sanitation must be built in poorer communities; scientific institutions and pharmaceutical companies must step up to develop new antibiotics; and importantly, health agencies need funding for detection and prevention of emerging superbugs.  Funding is also needed to change individual attitudes and health care practice or policy.

Hopefully we have learned some lessons from the topic of global warming. Government agencies were slow in recognizing the problem and educating the public,and are currently not supporting or underfunding initiatives aimed at reducing rising levels of greenhouse gas emissions. We cannot afford to delay investing in the efforts and specific actions needed to decrease the overuse of antibiotics and the spread of drug-resistant superbugs.



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