An infectious disease that can spread rapidly, potentially cause death
and withstand treatment--that's been the plot point for many films,
books and TV shows in which mankind suffers the frightening consequences
of a viral or bacterial pandemic. But what has been confined to fiction
is beginning to take root in reality with the rise of "superbugs."
"Superbug is the term for an infection caused by bacteria that has
mutated and become resistant to many antibiotics," says
Lawrence Martinelli, MD, FACP, FIDSA, infectious disease physician and Chief Medical Informatics Officer at
Covenant Health. "There are several types of these bacterial infections, such as
certain strains of staph or tuberculosis, for instance. These superbugs
can be very dangerous because they are difficult to treat, and there simply
aren't enough new antibiotics being developed to keep up with increasing
The numbers are sobering. An estimated 2 million Americans contract antibiotic-resistant
infections each year, resulting in 23,000 deaths, according to the U.S.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When looking at international
numbers, that death rate jumps to 700,000 people per year. That's
one reason why the leaders of the United Nations General Assembly agreed
to work together on developing plans to stop the spread of superbugs around
the world, and the U.N.'s World Health Organization called these diseases
"a fundamental threat to human health, development and security."
While governments are moving to take action, there are some things you
can do to help lessen your risk of contracting infections, including those
caused by superbugs, says Dr. Martinelli:
1. Ask your doctor if you really need antibiotics for an illness. The CDC says 47 million antibiotic prescriptions are prescribed each year
in the United States that are unnecessary, and that the overuse of antibiotics
has been a key reason for the development of resistant bacteria. "Antibiotics
are immensely valuable to modern medicine when used properly," Dr.
Martinelli says. “But remember, antibiotics can't cure a virus
such as the common cold. Ear and
sinus infections as well as bronchitis often resolve on their own. Receiving antibiotics
for these conditions can lead to complications such as antibiotic associated
diarrhea. In fact, taking antibiotics for a viral illness can make things
worse, because the drug is eliminating the body's good bacteria."
Dr. Martinelli adds that you shouldn't press your doctor for a prescription
for antibiotics if he doesn't think it's needed; if your doctor
wants to prescribe, ask him why he thinks it's the best course of
treatment, or if there are other alternatives.
2. Take your medicine correctly. "If antibiotics are prescribed, then it's important to follow
the directions exactly and
complete the entire course of treatment," Dr. Martinelli says. "If you don't, all the bacteria may
not be eliminated from your system and you run the risk of ongoing infection."
And don't share your antibiotics with other family members if they
get sick--they should see a doctor and have their symptoms checked, as
it could be a different type of illness.
3. Be selective about the meat you eat. "Humans aren't the only ones to overuse antibiotics--animals are
also commonly given the drugs in their feed to promote growth. This leads
to the development of superbugs in our animal populations, which can cross
over to us and cause infections" Dr. Martinelli says. While it's
up to the government to create standards for antibiotic use with animals,
you can support farms that don't use antibiotics for growth by purchasing
meat and poultry that is
organic or is verified as antibiotic free by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
4. Practice good hygiene. "As with any communicable disease, one of the best forms of prevention
is washing hands regularly with soap and warm water, especially after
handling raw food, being in contact with a sick person, or visiting a
communal space such as the gym or a classroom," Dr. Martinelli says.
"It's also wise to keep personal items such as razors, towels
and cosmetics to yourself and avoid sharing them with other people. These
are habits that, if done on a daily basis, can help prevent infections."
Have you had a positive experience with antibiotics? What habits have you
taught your family to protect them from germs? Share a comment below.