By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
They’re called superbugs, and as of last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) had identified at least a dozen strains of these antibiotic-resistant pathogens.
And while most of us will never have to deal personally with these mega-contumacious bacterial infections, the WHO and other global public health organizations are now warning that they could pose one of the most serious medical threats to humanity in the coming decade.
Superbugs, which are mutated bacteria that cannot be killed using most traditional antibiotics, can spread throughout the body and eventually lead to death in patients who would otherwise have full recoveries from their conditions.
The international medical community has been trying to sound the alarm about superbugs for the last 10 years, but for the most part, physicians, nurse practitioners and self-prescribing hypochondriacs have woefully ignored their warnings, haphazardly administering massive quantities of antibiotics for minor conditions or even for viral infections, which do not respond to antibacterials.
Consequently, more than 400,000 Mexicans are infected with superbugs each year, and as many as 10,000 die as a consequence.
And according to the WHO, by the year 2050, superbugs could account for the loss of 10 million lives worldwide each year, as well as $100 trillion in medical outlays.
Since they were first introduced in medical practice at the start of the 20th century, antibiotics have slowly been nurturing the development of superbugs.
The overuse or misuse of antibiotics is the number one factor in spurring the development of superbugs, and the more antimicrobials a person takes, the higher their risk of being infected by one of these multidrug-resistant bacteria.
According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC), about 30 percent of antibiotics administered in the United States each year are unnecessary, and about 70 percent of the antibiotics administered are for livestock, even though most of the animals are not sick.
There are no comparable specific figures for Mexico, but most experts say the numbers are probably similar here.
Virtually any species of bacteria can evolve into a superbug, and the scariest part of the equation is that more and more pathogens – including potentially fatal strains – are developing resistance to antibiotic treatments.
Meanwhile, less than a dozen new antibiotics have been developed in the last decade (pharmaceutical companies are not big on antibacterials because, since they usually work with just a week or so of treatment, they don’t pay off nearly as well as drugs for chronic incurable diseases).
“We are fast running out of treatment options,” Marie-Paule Kieny, WHO assistant director general for disease control, told the New York Times in a recent interview.
“If we leave it to market forces alone, the new antibiotics we most urgently need are not going to be developed in time.”
The World Health Organization has listed three families of superbugs as “critical priority” (including new, more-resistant strains of E. coli, salmonella and bubonic plague), six categories of “high priority” superbugs (including MRSA staphylococcus flesh-eating bacteria and some strains of influenza and gonorrhea), and three groups of “medium priority” superbugs.
But the WHO list is still growing, and conditions which we once considered minor could soon become life-threatening.
Before long, the superbug catalogue may include resistant strains of tuberculosis, malaria, syphilis and other common bacteria.
Even a simple scratch or sore throat could soon once again pose a deadly threat to life.
As it stands now, superbugs are winning an ever-intensifying race against time with the medical community, and each day these Olympian bacteria hone even more their uncanny ability to repel science’s most effective arsenal of pharmaceutical weapons.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.