October 20, 2014
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Infection

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Superbugs: What are they and how are they formed?

The Alberta patient who was diagnosed in the summer of 2010 with the infection of an NDM-1 strain superbug from an Indian hospital has attracted much media attention and alarm in the medical community. Only two NDM-1 cases have been reported in Canada and a handful of cases have been reported worldwide, but experts fear that this strain of bacteria can threaten patients in hospitals globally.

What earns bacteria the title "superbug"? Bacteria can carry genes that allow them to survive exposure to the antibiotics we currently have. This means that infections caused by these bacteria are harder to treat, although they are not necessarily more severe or infectious. What is concerning is that the gene that carries antibiotic resistance can be passed between bacteria, allowing for the creation of bacteria that carry resistance genes to many different antibiotics, a superbug.

In this case, NDM-1 is an enzyme gene that can be acquired by common bacteria that cause diseases such as pneumonia, or infections of the urinary tract, kidney, bladder or blood. This enzyme gives bacteria resistance to carbapenem, a strong antibiotic that can kill a variety of bacteria, but that is often used as a last resort when other antibiotics do not work.

But NDM-1 strain bacteria are not the first superbugs. In fact, MRSA, a strain of Staphylococcus bacteria that carries resistance to a number of antibiotics, has been a major problem in health care settings for years. MRSA bacteria are resistant to most of the antibiotics used to treat them, making common infections difficult to treat.

Regardless of MRSA or NDM-1, the overuse or misuse of antibiotics contributes to the formation of these superbugs. When antibiotics are used for things other than bacterial infections, like the flu, or not taken as the doctor prescribed (e.g., stopping taking the antibiotics earlier than the intended full course of treatment), they will become less effective for future bacterial infections and possibly acquire resistance genes. As more bacteria become resistant to antibiotics, the risk of complications and death is increased. Doctors will have to resort to less commonly used antibiotics, many of which are more expensive and are associated with severe side effects, without necessarily being able to treat the infection.

There are a number of things you can do to ensure the safe use of antibiotics:

  • Be sure to understand when antibiotics should be used. Antibiotics are only effective against bacterial infections, and they should never be used for viral infections such as a cold or flu.
  • Follow your doctor's instructions precisely when you are prescribed an antibiotic. Stopping the treatment early can allow resistant bacteria to survive and spread.
  • Never take antibiotics without a prescription. Taking leftover antibiotics without a prescription can be harmful because they might not be the appropriate choice for your condition or may not be enough to combat the infection.
  • Keep good hygiene to prevent infection. Washing hands before eating and after going to the bathroom or visiting a hospital can go a long way towards preventing infections.

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