This Antibiotics Awareness Week, CANSTAR and NPS MedicineWise are reminding every Australian that there’s a good reason why doctors only give you antibiotics when you really, really need it: superbugs. No longer a myth, superbugs and antibiotics present a real threat to modern medicine and the health of our nation.
What are superbugs?
Superbugs are antibiotic resistant bacteria that cause infections that cannot be cured using the antibiotics designed for that type of infection. Some superbugs develop resistance to just one type of antibiotics, but over time some superbugs have developed resistance to all the forms of the antibiotics we currently have available for treating that type of infection.
The World Health Organisation has declared that superbugs are one of the greatest threats to human health. This is especially true because no new classes of antibiotics have hit the shelves in 30 years, because pharmaceutical companies are currently not given incentives to create new types of antibiotics.
Are superbugs real – are there really antibiotic resistant bacteria out there?
As of 2016, medical journals such as Stat Magazine were reporting that e-coli in the USA had become resistant to two of our “last resorts”, the strongest antibiotics for this superbug. The combination superbug is already present in other countries including Germany, Venezuela, and China. Thankfully, this particular strain of e-coli was still somewhat vulnerable to other (weaker) forms of antibiotics.
What’s worse, studies from Harvard have shown that becoming antibiotic resistant doesn’t weaken most bacteria at all – it only makes the superbugs’ genetics stronger.
You can watch superbugs grow before your very eyes, thanks to scientists from MIT collaborated with Harvard Medical School and Technion Israel Institute of Technology. They filmed an experiment where antibiotic resistant bacteria evolved in a space of two weeks to conquer several strains of our strongest antibiotics. We’re very glad they didn’t let the bugs out!
Source: Science Magazine
The good news is that scientists at the University of Melbourne may have the answer – in September 2016, they announced they had created molecules that are capable of ripping apart the cell walls of antibiotic resistant bacteria (ABC).
Progress report on antibiotic resistant bacteria superbugs in Australia
E-Coli can cause gastroenteritis, haemorrhagic colitis, or urinary tract and genital infections. Half of Australian strains are already resistant to the number one cure (amoxycillin), and apparently it’s getting worse.
Tuberculosis can cause respiratory failure, coughing up blood, fever, and weight loss. Although it is thought of as a disease from the Dark Ages, 2 to 3% of TB in Australia is now resistant to multiple strains of antibiotics, making it just as dangerous as it used to be when there was no treatment at all (Department of Health). Some TB is now resistant to all available antibiotics, and this type of TB is frequently fatal around the world. Antibiotic resistant TB was once restricted only to HIV patients, but has now entered the wider community.
Golden Staph (staphylococcus aureus) can cause minor infections in wounds or create boils, and is quickly becoming resistant to our last line of defence, vancomycin. Nearly half of staph infections in Australian hospitals are resistant to most forms, and 5% are also resistant to vancomycin (MRSA).
Enterococcus can cause blood and heart infections as well as gastrointestinal and genital infections. There are two main strains of antibiotics used for enterococcus, and a small percentage of these bugs are already resistant to both strains, making them potentially unstoppable.
Vancomycin Resistant Enterococci (VRE) can cause gastrointestinal infections in sick patients whose immune system is lowered. Some antibiotics are still effective on VRE.
Streptococcus pneumoniae can cause life-threatening pneumonia, bronchitis, chronic sinusitis, middle-ear infections, and even meningitis and septicaemia (blood poisoning). At least half of Australian strains are resistant to 1 antibiotic, and a third are resistant to 3 or 4 antibiotics. Large numbers of Australians suffer from infections caused by strep.
Haemophilus influenzae can cause bacterial meningitis, middle-ear infection, sinusitis, and bronchitis. Names can be deceiving, as this superbug cannot cause the flu. About one third of this bug are resistant to the three strains of antibiotic most commonly prescribed to treat it, presenting a major threat (ABC, 2013).
Gonorrhoea is a sexually-transmitted disease (STD) that has few symptoms apart from genital discharge, but can cause infertility. In Australia, gonorrhoea has become resistant to almost all antibiotics since the Vietnam War, including penicillin, tetracycline, and the newest groups of antibiotics.
How to fight superbugs
This isn’t medical advice by the way – please ensure that you seek medical attention for any real or suspected bugs that you need to fight!
1. Only use antibiotics when you really need to
The misuse of antibiotics – taking them when you just have a cold or flu and you don’t need them to recover – can train bacteria to become resistant to those antibiotics. Whenever you take antibiotics and you don’t need to, you are given the superbugs a window of opportunity, which is why medical professionals recommend that you don’t do it.
If you do need antibiotics, your doctor will encourage you to finish the whole course you are prescribed – take every tablet. If you only take half the course, this may not kill the bacteria completely and may train the bacteria to become resistant.
2. Wash your hands with soap and water, not antibacterial soap
Antibacterial soaps may sound like they would be best to fight, well, bacteria – and they are. But they can also strip your skin of its moisture barrier, making it easier for bacteria to create an infection and settle in. Apparently normal soap and water can keep your hands just as clean.
3. Natural antibiotics may help prevent bugs
Garlic, turmeric, Manuka honey (raw honey), ginger, onions, red chillis, horseradish, and white vinegar (a.k.a. apple cider vinegar) are all reported to have natural antibiotic qualities to fight infections.
We’re not suggesting that you just drink a jar of honey next time you’re really sick and hope for the best, of course. When you visit the doctor, ask them whether they know of other natural remedies that might help instead of asking for antibiotics first thing.
Not so keen on smelling like garlic? You can take all of the above in tablet form, with vitamin supplements for all of these remedies available over the counter at your local chemist.
4. Lobby the government for health funding
Pharmaceutical companies need incentives to create antibiotics – especially because these drugs, while they save millions of lives, don’t always send a lot of money back to the companies that created them. Asking the government to fund more research into creating new antibiotics and distributing them is one way to fight superbugs.
Medical discoveries of alternatives to antibiotics are being made all the time, but so far the funding is not there to develop them from theory into practice and distribute them to hospitals and chemists across the country. For example, silver is a natural antibiotic, as are some marine compounds.
5. Make sure you’re covered
In the meantime, check your health insurance coverage. Make sure your Hospital Cover covers a longer-than-usual stay if you should be struck down with a superbug after surgery. Find out whether your Extras Cover would cover non-PBS medicines if you needed a super-strong antibiotic.
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