An outbreak of a “superbug” at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center has been linked to two deaths, with possibly more than 170 exposed to the deadly bacteria that’s resistant to strong antibiotics.
Medical devices used in endoscopic procedures were found to be housing the superbug carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE) even after going through a disinfection process. CRE produces an enzyme called New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase, or NDM, that eliminates the effectiveness of antibiotics.
A superbug is a strain of bacteria that’s heavily resistant to different types of antibiotics. The CDC estimates that 23,000 people are killed and over two million people are affected by superbugs each year. The rise of these statistics in the last decade could suggest a link between overuse of antibiotics and the creation of these drug-resistant bacteria.
Antibiotics are effective for bacterial infections, but are commonly misused in treating viral infections such as the cold or flu. When you take an antibiotic for a viral infection, it doesn’t affect the virus; but it does attempt to kill all the bacteria in your gut, regardless of whether they’re the bad guys or the good guys that help with digestion and maintaining a healthy microbiome environment. Some bad bacteria is strong enough to resist the antibiotic, making it stronger and giving it a new freedom to multiply rapidly.
The more antibiotics are used unnecessarily, the more these bacteria are given a chance to become stronger. They can spread to other people, and even share their antibiotic-resistant qualities with other bacteria. This is how superbugs begin to form and spread.
In this article in The New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Cesar Arias, the director of the Molecular Genetics and Antimicrobial Resistance Unit at the Universidad El Bosque in Colombia, warns of the global consequences of these evolving strains of antibiotics. He points out the issue of bacteria that are resistant to our last resort antibiotics, and that there isn’t much in the pipeline for antibiotic development. This report backs up that claim, urging the creation of a solid antibacterial research and development infrastructure that can respond to evolving strains.
In this editorial piece in the Journal of The Association of Physicians of India, the author links practices of those in the Indian medical community to evolving bacteria, stating: “There is no restriction on the usage of higher end antibiotics in India. Indian doctors need not justify their prescription. Any doctor can prescribe and in some cases even pharmacists can dispense without prescription meropenem in a situation where ampicillin would have been adequate and at the same time prescribing ampicillin in a case where meropenem would have been the right choice.” The NDM enzyme is so named because of it being identified in New Delhi. It’s worth noting that the Indian health ministry has disputed studies that it originated in India, and there’s been backlash from the Indian government that the naming is a propaganda move.
So what can we do on an individual level to stop the spread of superbugs? Don’t pressure your doctor into prescribing antibiotics when it’s unnecessary, and take the full course of antibiotics when you are given them, to ensure that the harmful bacteria has been eradicated, rather than surviving and becoming stronger.