Misuse of Antibiotics and a Deadly New Generation of Superbugs

New strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria are developing, and our modern methods of fighting infection are at risk. What is causing this? And what can you do to stop it?

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Without antibiotics, our ability to fight disease reverts to that of the past, when a simple infection could mean sudden death. According to the World Economic Forum “arguably the greatest risk...to human health comes in the form of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.”

News coverage of these bacteria is growing. Recently, the CDC warned America’s hospitals of a strain of Carbapenem-Resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE), a group of gut bacteria that resists even the strongest antibiotics. Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC, refers to CRE as a “nightmare bacteria,” which can kill up to half of patients who get bloodstream infections. Once only restricted to a few states, the dangerous bacteria has spread to 42 states and doesn’t show signs of stopping.

However, the onslaught of resistant bacteria isn’t new. Reports of MRSA (Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus) broke out in 2000. This strain of the mostly respiratory and skin bacteria became resistant to a commonly used class of antibiotics called beta-lactams. The result is a hard-to-treat infection that requires special, more powerful antibiotics, like vancomycin. Dangerous antibiotic-resistant strains of tuberculosis, gonorrhea and Pseudomonas aeruginosa are also popping up in health clinics and hospitals around the country.

Many physicians believe this rapid development of antibiotic resistance comes from the overprescription and misuse of antibiotics.

How Did This Begin?

According to Dr. Brad Spellberg, an infectious disease expert, resistance to antibiotics has been in development for eons. “Prokaryotes [bacteria] 'invented' antibiotics billions of years ago, and resistance is primarily the result of bacterial adaptation to eons of antibiotic exposure.” The development of new antibiotic-resistant CRE and other stains isn’t a novel feat for bacteria.

The development of resistance depends on Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” concept. “[Antibiotic] use naturally selects for preexisting resistant populations of bacteria in nature,” says Spellberg. As those populations survive and grow, they have the potential to spread to the general population.

In the 1930s, when the first antibiotic drugs were introduced, death rates plummeted. We kept ahead of any bacterial resistance by developing new antibiotics in the '40s, '50s, '60s and '70s. Then, however, the pharmaceutical industry stopped investing in antibiotics research. So, now, we have a growing number of bacteria that is resistant to most of the antibiotics we throw at them.