The Rise of the Superbugs
A Superbug is a bacterium that can live in the human body and has the ability to withstand all forms of antibiotic medication.Superbugs are becoming increasingly significant in modern medicine as they are becoming more and more resistant to antibiotics.Antibiotics were discovered in 1928 by Alexander Fleming (Walsh and McManus, 2000).
This resulted in a huge movement forward in medical history and even greatened human life expectancy. Since then antibiotics have been widely used and abused, people began to treat everything with this ‘miracle’ drug.
If antibiotics are continually used as bacteria grows exponentially more resistant to them then eventually society will fall back into an era without the readily use of antibiotics. Fortunately the superbug is not currently immune to all antibiotics as some forms of antibiotics can still treat the bacteria. In years to come the superbug will become increasingly hazardous to mainstream society as it grows faster than scientists can create medication for. Bacteria are the main source for all diseases and deaths worldwide and have been on earth for billions of years, much longer than humans.
Bacteria were first discovered by a Dutchman named Anton van Leeuwenhoek in the 1660’s but it wasn’t until the 1850’s that bacteria was regarded as the main cause of disease. Because bacteria have been around for so long it has evolved to adapt to most environments to withstand any other organisms. In the 1930’s Alexander Fleming, Ernst Chain and Howard Florey discovered an antibody which could destroy most bacteria and assist to fight infectious diseases. Many experiments were completed to understand the full impact antibiotics had on humans and how much was needed to rid someone of disease.
Drug companies began to mass produce Antibiotics as a means of curing infections and diseases, but only a few years later scientists began to observe the bacteria’s resistance to antibiotics. Like most environments, bacteria were able to adapt to live comfortably with the Antibiotics. Darwin’s theory of evolution states that through natural selection the fittest will survive, this is the case for bacteria living with antibiotics. (Wiley, 2004) ‘The introduction of an antibiotic alters the environment and acts as a selective pressure’.
They had developed a resistant by numerous ways, the most common being horizontal gene transmission. This is the passing of genetic material between bacterial cells and can be done by three different processes. The first being Conjugation, which is the transmission of resistant genes through plasmids. Plasmids are small strands within a call which are able to replicate the DNA of a chromosome and carry information around the cell and to other cells. It allows the cell the ability to adapt to different environments.
The bacterium achieves antibiotic resistance by direct contact with another bacterium where the plasmid moves into the other cell through a protein tube called a Pilus. The second is Transformation, a cell will pick up DNA from their environment, usually from other dead cells and then incorporate it into its own genetic makeup. The third is called Transduction. This is where bacteriophages, which are small viruses, pass through bacteria injecting themselves inside. When a phage moves to the next bacterium it carries a small amount of the genetic code from the previous cell, allowing the DNA to pass between cells. Wiley, 2004) (Bailey, 2013). These bacteria then split and multiply, creating a bacterium that is resistant to most antibiotics and these are known as superbugs. Superbugs are growing at an exponential rate, with more antibiotics used, bacteria has the perfect environment to create an ideal resistant bacterium. For many years now scientists have known of this increasing issue, attempting to create new forms of antibiotics while the bacteria will always adapt and grow resistant to.
To quote Alexander Fleming: ‘The greatest possibility of evil in self-medication is the use of too small doses so that instead of clearing up infection the microbes are educated to resist penicillin and a host of penicillin-fast organisms is bred out which can be passed to other individuals and from them to others until they reach someone who gets a septicemia or pneumonia which penicillin cannot save. ’ (Walsh and McManus, 2000). The superbug poses a huge threat to society in many ways and it raises many issues. How should the patient be handled?
How many different types of antibiotics are too much for a person to retain? How can people living in poverty prevent the spread of bacteria? The rise of the superbug produces numerous questions surrounding the care of patients and the fast spread of the resistant bacteria. The way scientists and doctors treat and care for their patients should be top priority, but when the patient is either living in poverty or in an area with limited resources it becomes difficult. In many poor cultures the superbug is growing much faster because they don’t necessarily have the understanding to prevent the spread of bacteria.
In places like India and Pakistan antibiotics can be bought readily at pharmacies without prescriptions. Because many people think antibiotics can cure anything they use them inappropriately, therefore creating an environment for the bacteria to grow resistant. This is a major issue in Southern Asia as the rise of superbugs is much faster here than other countries. Reasons for this include the ease of access to antibiotics, the method of isolation for patients with the superbug and the contamination of water by antibiotics.
Many drug companies deposit their waste into rivers nearby, creating the perfect environment for bacteria. Isolation of patients is significant in controlling the outbreak of the superbug but in many Southern Asian countries isolation is not very well managed. Limited resources mean there is limited rooms and limited money and as a result many hospitals provide suitable grounds for the superbug. In many Western countries isolation can also be a problem but in a different way. Because some bacteria can spread so easily, isolation becomes the solution. While they are dying from that disease they are probably going to infect others. So on a public health point of view it’s better off not treating them and sending them off to die alone’ (4 Corners, 2012).
Economically many drug companies aren’t developing new ways to defeat the superbug because it’s not as profitable as manufacturing drugs that people will need for their entire lives. As a result there are only a small number of companies attempting to defeat the superbug. Another area for concern is the current rate of antibiotics going into animal feed. In 1998, in the United States, 80 million prescriptions of antibiotics for human use were filled. This equals 12,500 tons in one year. Animal and agricultural uses of antibiotics are added to human use. Agricultural practices account for over 60% of antibiotic usage in the U. S. , so this adds an additional 18,000 tons per year to the antibiotic burden in the environment’ (Kenneth Todar, 2012). Politically this number is far too large to sustain as it is expensive and eventually won’t help the animals, rather it will just create more superbugs.
The most important question is what is being done to prevent the rise of superbugs. Scientists develop numerous ways to do this, most failing. But recently there have been a few breakthroughs in terms of stopping the superbugs from killing humans. Firstly, more than ? of all antibiotics used are from soil. Antibiotics are also found hundreds of metres underground in caves, where the living conditions are harsh. In order for the bacteria to survive they must either defend their own resources very well or attack other bacteria, by producing bacteria killing chemicals, to get their resources.
Collecting these chemicals could produce a new antibody that is extremely powerful because it has survived in such harsh environments. Secondly, just as bacteria have been on earth for billions of years, so have bacteriophages. A bacteriophage is a virus for bacteria; it injects itself into the bacterium and produces many replicas of itself inside. It will keep replicating until the bacteria splits or bursts. As there are many different types of bacteria there are also any different bacteriophages, which makes it difficult to find the right phage for the bacteria.
Using bacteriophages to kill bacteria is better than antibiotics because they have the ability to adapt to their environment. Lastly bacteria can’t kill on it’s own, it must have a large number of bacteria to create any damage to a person. It was discovered quite recently that bacteria have the ability to communicate with each other, they release molecules that grow in proportion to the number of bacteria so when that number gets high enough the receptors on the bacteria communicate and change their behaviour at the same time (SBS Documentary, 2013).
This is known as quorum sensing. Being able to stop the communication between bacteria would prevent the bacteria from harming people, they would be inactive. Many scientists have produced other methods to prevent the rise of the superbug but unfortunately most bacteria have evolved and become resistant. Currently there are very little bacteria that have fully evolved to be resistant to all antibiotics but in the years to come antibiotics could become ineffective.
In the past antibiotics were overused, they were used to fight diseases that could not be cured with antibiotics which therefore created antibiotic resistant bacteria. Only in recent times have scientists really begun to address this issue as more and more people are developing the superbug with no appropriate cure yet. The rise of the superbug is becoming increasingly dangerous to society and many ethical, economical and health issues must be answered.