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Watch Out for Superbugs!

An Overview of Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria

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Updated November 06, 2008

Imagine a battle of the Justice League of Superdrugs vs. the notorious villain Staph-Man. Penicillin Man defeats Staph-Man, but fails to kill him, allowing him to devise even more powerful antics to thwart his defeat. Wonderdrug tries next, and she fails as well. Each time the Superdrugs fail, Staph-Man becomes more powerful, until one day he becomes the Supervillain, Superdrug-Resistant Staph-Man! Panic ensues, and the entire city is now in fear of this undefeatable criminal.

Now imagine that the Superdrugs are antibiotics, and Staph-Man is the disease-causing bacteria, Staphylococcus aureus. The battle arena is your body, and the microbe evolves into a “superbug”. Now what? The bad news is that treatments are limited for these superbugs, and once infected, you may be in for the long haul. The good news is that, by understanding how superbugs evolve and taking appropriate actions against them, we can play a part in limiting their spread.

Definition of “Superbug”

A superbug is a strain of bacteria that is resistant to most prescribed antibiotics.

Where do they come from?

Sadly, the emergence of superbugs is a consequence of our own human behavior. In the mid-20th century, when antibiotics were first introduced as the new “miracle drug” for combating bacterial infections, little was understood about the development of antibiotic resistance.

Bacteria naturally undergo mutations, or minor genetic changes, at fairly high rates. Imagine that in one-million bacteria cells, all of which are undergoing various mutations, a single cell has a mutation that prevents an antibiotic from doing its thing. This bacterium is now considered antibiotic-resistant.

Next, imagine the same thing happening in a person who is infected with infectious bacteria. If treatment with antibiotic X is incomplete, there is a good chance that antibiotic-resistant bacteria will emerge and continue to grow until the infection is re-established. The artillery of antibiotics used for battling the infection becomes more limited, since antibiotic X is now useless. This scenario becomes more severe when the infection can only be eliminated with a limited number of antibiotics or when the antibiotic-resistant strain gets passed to other healthy individuals. Multi-drug resistant strains of bacteria are the most dangerous, as few alternative treatments to bacterial infections are as effective as antibiotics.

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