Drug resistance is one of the greatest threats we face today, with an estimated 700,000 deaths per year as a result of pathologies caused by resistant bacteria or ‘superbugs’. These figures, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), will increase to 10 million deaths in the next 25 years.

Superbugs definition

Superbugs are “strains of bacteria, parasites and fungi that are resistant to most antibiotics and other drugs commonly used to treat the infections they cause,” explains Mayo Clinic physician Pritish K. Tosh. In this way, some ‘superbugs’ can cause really serious diseases, such as pneumonia, urinary tract infections or skin conditions.

This antimicrobial resistance is a natural process that occurs over time when different pathogens are able to adapt to drugs designed to eliminate them. Thus, they change in order to ensure their own survival.

The improper and excessive use of antibiotics is one of the main causes of this global public health problem. Contamination in water or food, as well as poor handling, poor infection control or poor sanitary conditions in certain contexts are also factors that contribute to the development of these ‘superbugs’.

Antimicrobial resistance growth

The great threat lies in the fact that if the current situation is not reversed, experts predict that by 2050 resistant diseases could be the leading cause of global mortality.

“Common and potentially life-threatening infections, such as pneumonia, post-operative infections, as well as HIV, tuberculosis and malaria, are becoming increasingly difficult to treat due to antimicrobial resistance. If left unchecked, this phenomenon can have significant social, economic and health security consequences, which can undermine the development of countries,” explain the authors of the project ‘Working together to combat antimicrobial resistance’.

Therefore, if this problem is not reversed, the world is destined for an antibiotic-free era in which a multitude of frequent and treatable diseases can become life-threatening.

In fact, in 2017 the WHO report entitled ‘Antibacterial agents in clinical development – an analysis of the antibacterial clinical development pipeline, including tuberculosis’ revealed an alarming lack of antibiotics to be able to combat ‘superbug’ resistance.

“If we do not have effective antibiotics to prevent and treat infections, organ transplants, chemotherapy and surgical interventions will become more dangerous,” the organization warns.

Consequences of antimicrobial resistance

In this sense, the consequences of this resistance are more complicated in environments with limited resources and in the most vulnerable population groups, such as newborns and early childhood. Thus, pneumonia caused by bacteria and bloodstream infections “are among the leading causes of mortality in children under five years of age,” says the WHO.

The resistance of ‘superbugs’ to drugs has become a silent pandemic that, little by little, is harming the entire planet. Can you imagine not being able to successfully perform surgery or a transplant? Another recent WHO report asserts that “desperately needed antibacterial treatments are not being created.”

Infections with serious resistance to antibiotics

But which infections are developing the most serious resistance to antibiotics? Tuberculosis is one of the most threatening diseases in the world today. The bacterium that causes this pathology (Mycobacterium tuberculosis) is becoming increasingly resistant to the drugs that used to exist against it.

Clostridium difficile is another pathogen that is naturally resistant to frequent antibiotics. For this reason, it affects people after treatment with these drugs, as they can damage the intestinal flora. This resistance is increasing, so that the drugs used against the infection caused by this pathogen are becoming less effective.

On the other hand, multidrug-resistant bacteria that are especially dangerous in hospitals, nursing homes and among patients who need to be cared for with devices such as ventilators and intravenous catheters are: Acinetobacter, Pseudomonas and various enterobacteriaceae such as Klebsiella, E. coli, Serratia and Proteus. These pathogens can cause serious and often lethal infections, such as bloodstream infections and pneumonias.

Response to antimicrobial resistance

WHO has a list of antibiotic-resistant “priority pathogens” and the second and third levels also include bacteria that cause common diseases such as gonorrhea or food poisoning (such as salmonella).

One of the urgent steps is to change the way antibiotics are prescribed and used. A measure that must be accompanied by other guidelines such as vaccination against infections, regular hand washing and food safety.

It is vital to curb this resistance for a future in which common diseases can continue to be treated and do not pose a risk to life. Therefore, there are a multitude of projects underway worldwide to fight antimicrobial resistance.

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