Home Biology Scary Facts About Antibiotic-Resistant Superbugs
Biology By Trista -

Most people are adamant about taking care of their health. They focus on eating right, getting enough exercise, and taking suitable medications when they start to feel ill. However, eating salads and running on the treadmill isn’t going to keep away those drug-resistant superbugs that are claiming the lives of thousands of Americans each year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that millions of people are infected with superbugs each year, and roughly 35,000 people die every year from these infections. So, what are superbugs exactly, and what steps can the general populace take to help combat these superbugs?

Scary Facts About Antibiotic-Resistant Superbugs
Dictionary definition of the word superbug. Photo Credit: Feng Yu/Shutterstock

20. What Are Superbugs?

Superbugs are bacteria and fungi that have become difficult to treat because they have developed a resistance to common drugs used in everyday life. They’re present in every country around the globe, making them very difficult to treat and eliminate. Scientists can only develop new drugs and pharmaceuticals so fast, and it’s not at a rate swift enough to deal with these bugs before they evolve again and become even more challenging to treat. Superbugs are now causing almost twice as many deaths as they did nearly eight years ago when scientists first reported them (via USA Today).

When a patient goes to the doctor with a bacterial infection, the medical professional usually prescribes antibiotics. These antibiotics may focus on just the harmful bacteria causing the illness. Alternatively, the antibiotics can be broad-spectrum, killing all bacteria in the body, including the good bacteria, to eradicate the infection. Doctors mostly use narrow-spectrum antibiotics to prevent good bacteria from being killed (via NCBI). However, the harmful bacteria have the chance to mutate and become resistant to those antibiotics. Over time, they can become completely immune to these prescriptions.

Scary Facts About Antibiotic-Resistant Superbugs
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19. We’ve Been Aware of Antibiotic Resistance Since 1945

The man who discovered penicillin, Alexander Fleming, shared his concerns over antibiotics losing their effectiveness overtime back in 1945 (via Eco Watch). Lauded for his discoveries of penicillin, the dangers of antibiotics, and other medications losing their effectiveness over infections were made known to everyone at the time. However, no one really knew what to do about it. One would think that people would have exercised more often to prevent this from happening with this knowledge. Instead, we’re continuing to witness the rise of these superbugs.

Of course, it’s not easy to prevent this from happening, primarily due to nature and human error. Bacteria and fungi have been around for millions of years, so they’re used to adapting and mutating to meet their environment to continue their survival (via NCBI). On the part of human error, when given antibiotics, patients have been known to stop taking them once they feel better instead of continuing the round of treatment as prescribed. For this reason, the bacteria do not die. In fact, they learn to become more resistant to antibiotics because they failed to take the entire dosage.

Scary Facts About Antibiotic-Resistant Superbugs
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18. How Do Superbugs Spread through the Population?

Bacteria and fungi have been around for millions of years. They’ve found the perfect ways to stay alive through mutations and evolutions that help them evade the things that try to kill them. They do the same thing for antibiotics. Their DNA can order the bacteria and fungi to create specific proteins that antibiotics cannot break down, essentially protecting them from these drugs and leaving them undestroyed. Then, they share this drug resistance with other bacteria or fungi, just by touching, so that they become more and more immune to antibiotics with each new round of treatments if they survive (via USA Today).

This becomes even more dangerous when you think of these resistant bacteria people continue to transmit. Someone who isn’t showing any symptoms could infect another without even knowing it, and the newly infected person now has these foreign bodies they can’t get rid of. Moreover, they may not even realize it because they might not show symptoms either, which perpetuates passing of the bacteria from person to person.

Scary Facts About Antibiotic-Resistant Superbugs
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17. New Antibiotics Are Not Coming Out Fast Enough to Combat Superbugs

Unfortunately, scientists are not creating any new antibiotics to help combat this problem, and that’s because of the Food and Drug Administration (via Eco Watch). The approval of these new drugs has been on the decline, leaving all of these researched pharmaceuticals behind closed doors. This creates a gap that society cannot recover from that could explode into a real public health crisis. So why is there a significant disparity in developing new antibiotics when they were in full force just a few decades ago?

This is because there was a big boom in collecting natural substances and harvesting their antibiotics properties in the medical field. However, the FDA has recently had a more stringent view on antibacterial trials, making it more difficult for patients to participate in these studies, for example (via NCBI). Furthermore, pharmaceutical companies are investing even less in these antibiotics research due to these difficulties, making them more difficult to be brought to the market.

Scary Facts About Antibiotic-Resistant Superbugs
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16. Medical Use Is Not the Only Reason for Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria

Doctors prescribe antibiotics only, when necessary, but the real problem is if livestock use antibiotics (via Eco Watch). Why? Not only do cattle and fowl live in close quarters, but farmers also make more money with each animal that stays alive. By throwing antibiotics into their food, they’re ensuring that their livestock is at decreased risk of infection. They’re also fed to livestock in small doses to encourage weight gain so that there is more meat. However, antibiotics remain in these animals’ meat after being processed and enter our bodies when consumed.

The FDA has responded to this practice by saying that the use of antimicrobial drugs in this manner is not a judicious use of them. Otherwise, they haven’t taken any steps to stop this practice. They’ve offered some voluntary guidelines for the livestock industry. Nevertheless, they haven’t set any hard and fast rules to stop the practice altogether. For this reason, it’s unlikely that nothing will be changed. That means, it will only perpetuate more drug-resistant bacteria rearing their ugly heads in the future (via Eco Watch).

Scary Facts About Antibiotic-Resistant Superbugs
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15. Having an Acinetobacter baumannii Infection Can Send You to the Hospital

You would think that the hospital is one of the cleanest places to be when you’re sick. However, you’d be surprised how opportunistic this bacterium is. In fact, it looks out for those who have compromised immune systems — the kinds of people who end up in the hospital in the first place — and can lead to a whole series of infections, conditions, and diseases. It can contaminate medical equipment and surfaces inside a hospital. That goes double in intensive care units with many injuries and open wounds.

The Acinetobacter baumannii bacteria, left untreated, can lead to the development of pneumonia, urinary tract infections, and infections of the bloodstream (via Bio Fire). What makes the case even worse is that it has become resistant to the antibiotics once used to eliminate these bacteria. Some have even become resistant to all antibiotics, making infections very difficult to treat in the long run. The CDC estimates that it is responsible for hundreds of hospitalized patients each year (via CDC). Scientists need to conduct profound research to eliminate this awful bacterium from the hospital atmosphere.

Scary Facts About Antibiotic-Resistant Superbugs
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14. Enterococcus Also Affect Patients Who Are in Healthcare Settings

Enterococcus is a lactic acid bacterium that is challenging to distinguish from streptococci, the bacteria responsible for strep infections (via NCBI). These are already in human intestines. However, it becomes a real problem when they grow out of control. It has a high level of intrinsic antibiotic resistance. This can be a concern since it can be contracted during an organ transplant or in the intensive care unit. For this reason, it can cause surgical site infections, urinary infections, and bloodstream infections. If it spreads to the brain, it can lead to enterococcal meningitis.

Other symptoms of an Enterococcus infection include stiff neck, swollen or bleeding gums, diarrhea, abdominal pain, headache, fatigue, fever, and chills. In addition, it can spread through the blood and result in endocarditis, where the heart’s lining becomes infected and affects the heart’s regular operation. Wound infections are also prevalent, with wounds refusing to heal and the skin around the area becoming infected in the process. Thankfully, other antibiotics can take down the resistant strains, but these treatment options are likely to become less effective as time goes on (via Eco Watch).

Scary Facts About Antibiotic-Resistant Superbugs
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13. Staphylococcus Aureus Is a Common Bacteria with a Deadly Outcome

Staphylococcus aureus is bacteria most commonly found in people’s noses (via Medical News Today). It doesn’t cause any harm to the body most of the time, but it can cause staph infection on occasion. Left untreated or undiagnosed, it can result in severe or even fatal infections. Some examples include pneumonia or sepsis, an infection of the bloodstream. You can also develop endocarditis, an infection of the heart valves. Another risk is a bone infection called osteomyelitis. Staph infections are most likely to occur in healthcare settings because most people have compromised immune systems.

However, staph infections can occur just about anywhere. In the general public, people with uncovered and draining wounds, who share personal items like towels and razors, or who use injectable drugs like opioids are more prone to developing staph infections. Because staph infections can infect different body areas, symptoms will vary from each other depending on the infection. It can be anything from sores on the skin to symptoms similar to food poisoning. MRSA, one form of staph infection, has been drug-resistant, making it difficult to treat (via Bio Fire). Thankfully, the trend for this strain has been steadily heading downwards as MRSA cases decrease.

Scary Facts About Antibiotic-Resistant Superbugs
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12. Campylobacter Is the Reason You Should Cook Poultry Properly

Campylobacter infections result from undercooked chicken or other poultry or coming into contact with surfaces that have had raw poultry on them (via WebMD). It is estimated to result in at least 1.5 million infections every year. It’s the main reason you should always wash your hands in hot water with soap after handling raw chicken. You can also contract a Campylobacter infection by eating infected seafood and meat, contacting farm animals, and drinking untreated water. Campylobacter infection is not very serious, as most people recover independently, but some people require treatment with antibiotics.

The symptoms of a Campylobacter infection include diarrhea, stomach cramps, fever, vomiting, and nausea (via Bio Fire). These symptoms usually last about a week or so; an infection can result in death without proper hydration and nutrient replacement during this week. Without treatment, Campylobacter infection can become more complicated and develop into arthritis and temporary paralysis. Campylobacter does have several drug-resistant strains, and it is worrying that the number of these strains continues to grow.

Scary Facts About Antibiotic-Resistant Superbugs
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11. Clostridioides difficile Can Be Difficult to Treat Because Of Its Cause

Known as C. diff for short, the Clostridioides difficile bacteria result from taking broad-spectrum antibiotics (via APIC). This is because broad-spectrum antibiotics kill off both good and bad bacteria, including the good bacteria in the large intestines. The biome of the intestines requires the presence of good bacteria to help with the digestion process. Without them, the balance is off, allowing harmful bacteria to flourish. Clostridioides difficile is the bacteria responsible for antibiotic-related diarrhea. Other symptoms include fever, loss of appetite, nausea, fever, and stomach tenderness.

Because it occurs after taking antibiotics, it’s apparent that it is a resistant strain of bacteria. Although it’s normal to experience diarrhea after taking antibiotics, if it becomes severe, then you should see a doctor immediately. They may be able to prescribe you specific antibiotics designed to take care of Clostridioides difficile, and you have to take it for ten days for the infection to clear up completely. While infected, you have to take care in washing your hands every time you use the bathroom, as well as washing your rear end with soap while you’re in the shower (via Bio Fire).

Scary Facts About Antibiotic-Resistant Superbugs
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10. Shigella Is Treatable, But the Number of Resistant Strains Are Going Up

Shigella is responsible for the infection shigellosis (via CDC). The infection causes diarrhea, stomach cramps, and fever. These symptoms usually start one or two days after infection. They can last for up to a week. Typically, people can recover from shigellosis without antibiotic treatments. However, matters become complicated for those who have severe illness or underlying conditions that already weaken their immune system. A round of antibiotics can reduce the duration of the illness and can actually help reduce the spread of the illness.

All it takes is washing your hands with soap and water to prevent the infection of those around you, especially after contact with feces, contaminated food, or contaminated water. However, drug-resistant infections have been on a steady climb since 2013 and have shown no signs of slowing down. After the first round of antibiotic treatments, medical providers may have to prescribe even a second or third round to destroy the infection. However, oral antibiotics are generally less effective at taking care of Shigella than having antibiotics administered through IV, though this treatment option tends to be more expensive (via Bio Fire).

Scary Facts About Antibiotic-Resistant Superbugs
Female doctor holding a blackboard with candida auris written on it. Photo Credit: Noiel/Shutterstock

9. Candida auris Is Another Hospital-Focused Fungus

Candida auris is a fungal infection that can lead to candidiasis. It is also known as a candida infection and is actually a form of yeast (via Medline Plus). Often found in patients with weakened immune systems, resistant strains require a combination of fungal treatments and other drugs to combat the infection before it gets out of hand. It is more challenging to diagnose because it can be tricky to identify using standard laboratory methods, leading to inappropriate diagnosis and treatment.

Even in a hospital setting, Candida auris has shown to be resistant to the disinfectants used to keep surfaces clean, allowing it to spread more freely around the hospital setting (via Bio Fire). A Candida auris infection can cause wound, bloodstream, and ear infections. Although doctors find this infection in the urine and respiratory system, it is unclear whether it can cause lung and bladder infections. The most common sources of infection include those who have feeding or breathing tubes inserted since they’re being removed and inserted repeatedly, and they can be hard to clean.

Scary Facts About Antibiotic-Resistant Superbugs
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8. Pseudomonas aeruginosa Can Seriously Impact the Rest of Your Life

Pseudomonas is a type of bacteria commonly found in both soil and water (via Science Direct). The one that seems to pose a risk to humans is Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which can cause infections in the lungs, blood, and other body parts due to surgery. That is why this infection is common in hospital settings and long-term care facilities, especially on ventilation or feeding tubes. It is constantly finding new ways to increase its antibiotic resistance, making it more and more difficult to kill them so that they no longer continue to infect people.

The bacteria can be spread through contact with contaminated surfaces and then not washing one’s hands before coming into contact with another person (via Bio Fire). In a hospital, both patients and caregivers should keep their hands clean with soap and water or alcohol-based sanitizers. Specialists should also clean hospital rooms daily to prevent further infection. Doctors take cultures from patients with known drug-resistant strains, and they test these strains in the lab to see which antibiotics work best on the bacteria before writing a prescription.

Scary Facts About Antibiotic-Resistant Superbugs
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7. Enterobacteriaceae Is a Real Bacteria Killer

Some strains of Enterobacteriaceae bacteria are pretty dangerous, as they actively produce enzymes that break down commonly used antibiotics to render them ineffective (via AntiMicrobe). So, they’re essentially making it much harder for you to get better. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly 200,000 infections of hospitalized patients involve Enterobacteriaceae bacteria. Furthermore, as many as 9,100 cases result in deaths. An infection isn’t only prevalent in hospitalized patients; it can quickly spread to very healthy people. An Enterobacteriaceae infection is the result of excessive use of antibiotics.

The symptoms of an infection can vary, depending on the area of the body that is infected. The most common symptoms include belly pain (stomach infection), shortness of breath (pneumonia), pain and swelling of the skin (skin infection), and pain with urination (urinary tract infection). Treatment options also vary, depending on the kind of infection. IV fluids are usually prevalent to prevent the body from dehydrating and carefully monitor vital signs and alternative antibiotic treatments to deal with the infection (via Bio Fire).

Scary Facts About Antibiotic-Resistant Superbugs
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6. The Most Common Bacteria, Streptococcus pneumoniae, Is Now Antibiotic-Resistant

Streptococcus pneumoniae is one of the most common bacteria and causes many very nasty infections. It’s responsible for at least 2 million infections every year and takes so many different areas of the body (via Eco Watch). However, its resistance to so many antibiotics makes it a complicated bacteria to get rid of. Streptococcus pneumoniae is responsible for ear and sinus infections, pneumonia, infections of the bloodstream, and even meningitis. Meningitis is the bacterial infection of the brain that leads to swelling of brain tissues; because of the small space inside the skull, this swelling can lead to further complications and even death if left untreated.

The one piece of good news is that scientists are developing a vaccine to deal with the Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria that even combat the drug-resistant variants. The vaccine has worked so well that it has reduced as much as 90% of Streptococcus pneumoniae infections in children (via Bio Fire). It’s definitely a step in the right direction, but with the number of superbugs still out there, there’s still much work left to do.

Scary Facts About Antibiotic-Resistant Superbugs
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5. Should Someone Continue to Take Antibiotics When They’re Sick?

With all the news of these drug-resistant bacteria, people are hesitant to continue their antibiotic treatments, believing they’re only helping make them stronger. However, most antibiotics and antifungals are effective at fighting off these infections and even a few superbugs if people take them properly (via USA Today). Moreover, that means following your doctor’s orders to the letter; even if you feel better, you should take the whole round of antibiotic treatments until they are all gone (via USA Today). It is to ensure that the medicine kills all of the harmful bacteria. If you stop too early, you risk developing a drug-resistant strain.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, you should not self-prescribe antibiotics when you feel ill. Why? Because it could be a virus at work instead of bacteria. This, too, will increase drug resistance for the virus. Your viral infection will be more difficult to deal with in the future. If you feel wary about taking antibiotics, always speak to your primary care physician. Don’t be afraid to ask why you need that antibiotic. Also, double-check if there are any other options you could consider.

Scary Facts About Antibiotic-Resistant Superbugs
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4. More And More Companies Are Taking the Initiative to Help Fight Against Superbugs

Some food companies like Panera, McDonald’s, and Tyson Foods have taken the initiative to stop using poultry and other meats that receive antibiotics (via Fox). This is a step in the right direction, even with governments refusing to do anything about it. These food companies developed their own policies that limit what kind of drugs can be used by their produce suppliers. Even though these are small steps taken by big companies, it’s a lot better than doing nothing.

These policies only go so far, however. McDonald’s, for example, will stop using chicken raised on human antibiotics (via Fox). Nevertheless, the company says nothing about them receiving animal antibiotics, which could contribute to the problem. Evidence has shown that the overuse of antibiotics can impact human health, even across species. Another unexamined problem is that this only applies to poultry and not beef. Those in the livestock industry are more concerned about meeting their bottom line than the state of human health.

Scary Facts About Antibiotic-Resistant Superbugs
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3. How Can Scientists Bring New Antibiotics to the Market?

This is not just a problem for pharmaceutical companies; this is a problem that everyone should be involved in. Governments, industries, and other vital organizations should be working together to create a new pipeline of drugs to boost the chances of fighting these superbugs. There are several different options on the table people should consider. The first is to provide “rewards” to those who have successfully developed new antibiotics. Another idea is to use a “subscription” style of payment, where pharmaceutical companies receive payment upfront to access the drugs they’ve created (via Well Come).

Pharmaceutical companies have tried taking steps to improve the situation that everyone has found themselves in. For example, they’ve removed financial bonuses tied to sales. Furthermore, they have started sharing any data on the spread of drug-resistant infections with others. These are encouraging practices,. However, the change isn’t happening on the scale that’s required to really make a difference. At least not fast enough. Scientists need to take quicker action to protect modern medicine and reduce drug-resistant infections. They are plaguing countries worldwide on a much broader scale.

Scary Facts About Antibiotic-Resistant Superbugs
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2. How Many New Antibiotics Are Over the Horizon?

There are insufficient drugs to deal with the growing threat of superbugs. That leaves the human population up the creek without a paddle. According to the World Health Organization, there are at least between forty and fifty antibiotics in clinical development at the moment. The majority of these will only bring limited results compared to already-existing treatments. Furthermore, only a few target a small number of any of the superbugs.

The main problem is that it will take up to at least ten years for any of these drugs to make it to the market with the amount of testing they have to do (via Well Come). Moreover, many of them will fail along the way, too. Why? Because only one out of every fifteen drugs will actually reach patients for use. It has become a less fruitful endeavor, unfortunately. As a result, many pharmaceutical companies abandon research on antibiotics altogether. Nevertheless, there’s another hill to climb with getting these medications to market and making them accessible to both doctors and patients alike.

Scary Facts About Antibiotic-Resistant Superbugs
Antibiotic Resistance Concept. Photo Credit: Panchenko Vladimir/Shutterstock

1. What Else Can Scientists Do to Combat These Resistant Superbugs?

Researchers have recently put their heads together to find better ways to combat these superbugs. How? By using their own relatives against them. They’ve employed the use of CRISPR-Cas9 (via DW). What is that? A constructed gene-editing tool that infiltrates the interior of the harmful bacteria. It works as a pair of “genetic scissors,” cutting the DNA strands in the bacteria. That way, they can no longer thrive. The great thing about this method is that it doesn’t kill the good bacteria in the body the way broad-spectrum antibiotics do; it focuses only on harmful bacteria.

CRISPR-Cas9 have specific DNA sequence targets to know precisely what to look for and cut where that sequence is. This process is even more successful because bacteria share genetic material just by touching. With these changed sequences, the bacteria do all of the work for CRISPR-Cas9 (via DW). That means copying the new series and ultimately spelling their own demise. This has proven to be 99.9% effective against the targeted antibiotic-resistant bacteria in mice. In fact, it works by killing them in just under four days. However, the real problem lies in determining whether bacteria will further evolve to combat this technology. Thus, making them even harder to kill in the future.