Rise of the Superbugs

The human race has always been at war with bacteria, but the development of antibiotics in the 1930s and '40s gave us the upper hand over the bugs that were killing us. Suddenly we were superhuman. Prior to that, bacterial meningitis had 100% mortality, pneumonia 30% mortality and appendicitis 100% mortality, unless you had surgery.

Antibiotics allowed us to do things that no one could've dreamed of doing historically. They've allowed us to transplant organs, to undergo chemotherapy, to receive therapy in intensive K-units when we are critically ill. Without antibiotics none of those advances in human medicine would be possible.

We've still got the upper edge, clearly antibiotics still work, but it's the speed of change that concerns scientists. 20 years ago this wasn't an issue, but today it is. Infectious diseases kill more people than cancer. TB kills 5000 people a day, so if we don't start to act soon, within another 20 years we could be in serious trouble.

We've deployed our antibiotic defenses far and wide while the bacteria have kept up their counter attack. They've adapted and evolved. Now even our last and precious antibiotics are surrendering to the rise of the superbugs.

Now we know that people who return from overseas, after routine surgical procedures are getting superbugs in their bloodstream. With one billion people now travelling the world each year, bacteria are more mobile than ever before and so are superbugs. They're born when we abuse antibiotics and we're doing that across the globe. Every time we take an antibiotic we're giving the bug a chance to become a superbug. If more of us take antibiotics inappropriately the chances are greater that the superbug will come.

Australia is 7th in the world for overuse of antibiotics per capita. Australia is like many of other developed countries. They saw development and wealth equaling ability to use antibiotics, and they lost the plot in terms of realizing that many bacteria will not respond to antibiotics.

It's the Indian subcontinent which is proving to be a superbug's perfect petri dish. Antibiotic abuse is rampant there and there's no antibiotic policy. India mass produces antibiotics, sells them cheaply and the drugs are available over the counter without prescription. Waterways and even the soil are contaminated by waste from antibiotic manufacture. On top of poor sanitation and chronic overcrowding, it's fertile ground for antibiotic resistance.

There is a general principle in treatment of infections. The more we use any antibiotic the quicker the bacteria are going to become resistant to it. So if we have a situation where antibiotics are used in agriculture, where they're available over the counter, where in hospitals there is very little control over their use, clearly in that environment there's going to be a more rapid spread of resistance.

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