Superbugs will kill someone every three seconds by 2050 unless the world acts now.
That was according to a report in 2016 by BBC News. It's an alarming statement and a review commissioned by the UK government says that wide-ranging action is required at a global level to prevent a post-antibiotic future. It's well known that these life-threatening superbugs have been taking hold in our hospitals, but which bugs do we need to worry about and what can be done to reduce the spread of infection?
What is classed as a superbug?
It is a bacteria that has developed a resistance to multiple antibiotics. While MRSA (methicilllin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) is the most widely known, the latest superbug to affect patients is MSSA (methicilllin-susceptible Staphylococcus aureus) and it is on the rise. Superbugs can kill by causing pneumonia and an infection of the heart lining. This can particularly affect people who have lowered immune systems and are already very sick.
How can you catch a superbug?
Bacteria is usually spread through skin-to-skin contact with someone who has the infection or has the bacteria living on their skin. It can also be spread through contact with contaminated objects such as sheets, clothes, towels, door handles, and floors. A recent study showed that a quarter of superbugs are spread by nursing staff, and emphasised the importance of washing hands and wearing disposable gloves, even when just talking to patients to reduce the transmission of pathogens (bacteria).
Why don't antibiotics work?
The NHS says that over time, bacteria can evolve in response to their environment and develop mechanisms to survive antibiotic treatment. The resistance' starts as a random mutation in the bacteria's genetic code or the transfer of small pieces of DNA between bacteria. These mutations can enable them to survive treatment and when they replicate, they pass on their resistant nature to future generations of bacteria. In the government commissioned review, chair of the panel – economist Jim O'Neill – says that if action is not taken against superbugs they could be responsible for an estimated 10 million deaths a year by 2050.
Can anything be done?
At the moment limited treatment options exist in dealing with the superbugs. One of the few drugs that has been used to fight MRSA, called daptomycin, has been shown to only cure a third of patients. There are, however, things that can be done to prevent the spread of superbugs. The NHS says that rates of MRSA have fallen in recent years because of increased awareness of the infection. Ways to prevent the spread include washing hands regularly, especially after using the toilet and before and after eating, following any advice you have been given about wound care and devices that could lead to infection, such as catheters and reporting any unclean facilities in the hospital to staff.
If you are visiting a patient, again ensure cleanliness and clean your hands before and after entering a ward and before touching the person you are visiting. While it is possible to contract a superbug outside hospital this remains less common.