7 Reasons to Care About Superbugs & AMR
June 14, 2021
Superbugs – the word sounds powerful, impactful. But superbugs are not something we want; they are not the superheroes from the movie screen. They are microbes (bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites) that can’t be easily killed or stopped by the medications we have now. Antimicrobial resistance, AMR, is an umbrella term for antibiotic, antiviral, antifungal, and antiparasitic resistance.
AMR isn’t a new problem. Researchers and doctors expressed concern about antibiotic resistance in the 1950s and earlier. Even Sir Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin in 1928, expressed concern about misuse of penicillin and the resulting superbugs. So, if AMR isn’t new, why should we each care about it now, in 2021, and why hasn’t it been stopped already?
Here are seven reasons why you should care about antimicrobial resistance:
1- Superbugs and AMR are a top global threat.
“AMR has been identified by the World Health Organization [WHO] as one of the top 10 global public health threats,” said Cindy Hou, DO, Interim Chief Quality Officer and Infection Control Officer at Jefferson Health New Jersey. In October 2020, the WHO issued the following statements:
- Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is a global health and development threat. It requires urgent multisectoral action in order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
- WHO has declared that AMR is one of the top 10 global public health threats facing humanity.
The WHO identified these global health threats to bring awareness to their potential as top killers in the near future, if they are not addressed now. Vaccine hesitancy also made the list. And resistance to vaccines will also lead to more infections and more antibiotic resistant infections.
2- More people around the world are dying of superbugs and drug-resistant infections.
According to the WHO, almost three-quarters of a million people around the world die of drug-resistant infections each year. This number could rise to as high as 10 million per year if researchers and pharmaceutical companies don’t develop new drugs to combat the superbugs and if the healthcare community doesn’t curb the misuse of currently available drugs.
Misuse of available drugs includes:
- Prescribing antibiotics and other antimicrobials when they are not required.
- Giving antibiotics to livestock to prevent illness and promote growth rather than only when necessary.
- Patients not taking medications as prescribed or sharing them.
3- There are few antibiotic and other antimicrobial medications against superbugs in research and production.
When antibiotics became widely available, pharmaceutical companies raced to come up with new medications that would kill different microbes. This research and production led to hundreds of medications. But the last breakthroughs in antimicrobial medications occurred in the late 1980s, more than 30 years ago. Today, there is little incentive for pharmaceuticals to pour more funds and effort into developing new drugs.
According to an article published in Nature, it costs an estimated $1.5 billion to develop a new antibiotic. But the pharmaceutical company would only gain about $46 million in annual sales of that drug. “That’s tiny and nowhere near the amount needed to justify the investment,” says Kasim Kutay, chief executive of Novo Holdings, an investment firm in Hellerup, Denmark, focused on the life sciences, and the author of the article.
Pharmaceutical companies are largely for-profit companies and without the promise of earning more than they spend, they are less motivated to produce new drugs.
4- People will die of previously treatable infections
Anyone who visits cemeteries that date back to the mid-1900s and earlier can’t miss the many headstones marking the names of children who have died of infections. These range from childhood diseases like measles or scarlet fever, to bacterial infections in cuts. Fewer children died once vaccines, antibiotics, and other antimicrobials became more common.
As superbugs emerge, we may not have suitable medications to treat these infections anymore. People will die from infections that were once considered treatable, like urinary tract infections or strep throat. Dr. Hou explained that this is happening already. “Each year, according to the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], 2.8 million people acquire an antibiotic resistant infection and there are over 35,000 deaths [in the U.S.].”
5- A world with more superbugs will be very expensive
Infections that may have been treated at home with a short course of antibiotics may require in-hospital stays, with more potent intravenous (IV) antibiotics. People will be sicker, requiring more nursing and other types of health care. This will result in higher costs to the individuals being treated, and eventually higher insurance premiums for all.
In an article published in the journal, Infection and Drug Resistance, the authors wrote: “Infection with AMR leads to serious illnesses and prolonged hospital admissions, increases in healthcare costs, higher costs in second-line drugs, and treatment failures.” Routine procedures, like surgeries, cancer treatments, even Caesarean sections can be high risk procedures because of the infection potential but limited treatment options, resulting in necessary higher cost treatments.
6- Treatments that impact your immune system, like chemotherapy for cancer, can become too dangerous.
Cancer and other conditions that require medications that lower your immune system response depend on antibiotics to stop infections before they progress. Or, in some cases, prevent an infection in the first place. These include medications like chemotherapy or steroids, often used to limit inflammation. If there are no effective antibiotics, this type of formerly life-saving treatment could be too risky to continue using.
7- Superbugs will make surgeries too risky.
“We want antibiotics to be effective in order to prevent infection for routine surgeries, and to prevent infection after lifesaving transplants,” said Dr. Hou.
Surgical procedures range from minor (like a breast biopsy or arthroscopic knee surgery) to major (like heart bypasses), but all carry at least some infection risks. This risk remains present for people who must take immunosuppressing drugs for the rest of their life, like transplant recipients who need these drugs to keep their body from rejecting the new organ. As with chemotherapy for treating cancer, these drugs put them at risk for infections that could become antibiotic resistant.
Help POWER the AMRevolution – Be an advocate for safe antimicrobial use
Although healthcare professionals guide the number of antibiotic prescriptions they give to patients, the public can also be advocates for safe antimicrobial use. “Protection against superbugs depends on a variety of factors,” Dr. Hou explained. “Be an advocate and learn when antibiotics are needed and when they are not, such as when viruses are present. Hand hygiene is important to protect ourselves against bugs. Have an awareness of vaccines dependent on your age and risks for disease, such as when you might quality for pneumonia vaccines and the benefits of flu vaccines.”
To learn more about AMR and how you can help #EndSuperbugs, visit www.EndSuperbugs.org.