Stop of Spread of SUPERBUGS Stop of Spread of SUPERBUGS
NIH—-News in Heallth

Illustration of a woman clutching a tissue near her face while talking with her doctor, who has a prescription pad handy. For nearly a century, bacteria-fighting drugs known as antibiotics have helped to control and destroy many of the harmful bacteria that can make us sick. But in recent decades, antibiotics have been losing their punch against some types of bacteria. In fact, certain bacteria are now unbeatable with todays medicines. Sadly, the way weve been using antibiotics is helping to create new drug-resistant superbugs. Superbugs are strains of bacteria that are resistant to several types of antibiotics. Each year these drug-resistant bacteria infect more than 2 million people nationwide and kill at least 23,000, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Drug-resistant forms of tuberculosis, gonorrhea, and staph infections are just a few of the dangers we now face. Antibiotics are among the most commonly prescribed drugs for people. Theyre also given to livestock to prevent disease and promote growth. Antibiotics are effective against bacterial infections, such as strep throat and some types of pneumonia, diarrheal diseases, and ear infections. But these drugs dont work at all against viruses, such as those that cause colds or flu. Unfortunately, many antibiotics prescribed to people and to animals are unnecessary. And the overuse and misuse of antibiotics helps to create drug-resistant bacteria. Heres how that might happen. When used properly, antibiotics can help destroy disease-causing bacteria. But if you take an antibiotic when you have a viral infection like the flu, the drug wont affect the viruses making you sick. Instead, itll destroy a wide variety of bacteria in your body, including some of the good bacteria that help you digest food, fight infection, and stay healthy. Bacteria that are tough enough to survive the drug will have a chance to grow and quickly multiply. These drug-resistant strains may even spread to other people. Over time, if more and more people take antibiotics when not necessary, drug-resistant bacteria can continue to thrive and spread. They may even share their drug-resistant traits with other bacteria. Drugs may become less effective or not work at all against certain disease-causing bacteria. Bacterial infections that were treatable for decades are no longer responding to antibiotics, even the newer ones, says Dr. Dennis Dixon, an NIH expert in bacterial and fungal diseases. Scientists have been trying to keep ahead of newly emerging drug-resistant bacteria by developing new drugs, but its a tough task. We need to make the best use of the drugs we have, as there arent many in the antibiotic development pipeline, says Dr. Jane Knisely, who oversees studies of drug-resistant bacteria at NIH. Its important to understand the best way to use these drugs to increase their effectiveness and decrease the chances of resistance to emerge. You can help slow the spread of drug-resistant bacteria by taking antibiotics properly and only when needed. Dont insist on an antibiotic if your health care provider advises otherwise. For example, many parents expect doctors to prescribe antibiotics for a childs ear infection. But experts recommend delaying for a time in certain situations, as many ear infections get better without antibiotics. NIH researchers have been looking at whether antibiotics are effective for treating certain conditions in the first place. One recent study showed that antibiotics may be less effective than previously thought for treating a common type of sinus infection. This kind of research can help prevent the misuse and overuse of antibiotics. Treating infections with antibiotics is something we want to preserve for generations to come, so we shouldnt misuse them, says Dr. Julie Segre, a senior investigator at NIH. In the past, some of the most dangerous superbugs have been confined to health care settings. Thats because people who are sick or in a weakened state are more susceptible to picking up infections. But superbug infections arent limited to hospitals. Some strains are out in the community and anyone, even healthy people, can become infected. One common superbug increasingly seen outside hospitals is methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). These bacteria dont respond to methicillin and related antibiotics. MRSA can cause skin infections and, in more serious cases, pneumonia or bloodstream infections. A MRSA skin infection can appear as one or more pimples or boils that are swollen, painful, or hot to the touch. The infection can spread through even a tiny cut or scrape that comes into contact with these bacteria. Many people recover from MRSA infections, but some cases can be life-threatening. The CDC estimates that more than 80,000 aggressive MRSA infections and 11,000 related deaths occur each year in the United States. When antibiotics are needed, doctors usually prescribe a mild one before trying something more aggressive like vancomycin. Such newer antibiotics can be more toxic and more expensive than older ones. Eventually, bacteria will develop resistance to even the new drugs. In recent years, some superbugs, such as vancomycin-resistant Enterococci bacteria, remain unaffected by even this antibiotic of last resort. We rely on antibiotics to deliver modern health care, Segre says. But with the rise of drug-resistant bacteria, were running out of new antibiotics to treat bacterial infections, and some of the more potent ones arent working as well.