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The Race Against Superbugs

The Earth is under the attack of a race of powerful beings that threaten to push humanity to the edge of extinction. Thousands of these organisms which are invisible to the naked eye begin to rapidly dominate the entire planet. The only chance of survival is lost—our weapons against them fail and we succumb to the fate that we have brought upon ourselves.

This apocalyptic state may seem far from reality but these micro-organisms continue to thrive in your body and are growing stronger by the minute. The human body, equipped with its immune system and easy access to antibiotics is capable of fighting off most infectious micro-organisms, yet a few of them escape and lead to disastrous consequences.  The microbes that make it out of this battle are termed as Superbugs, which are widespread among the infectious agent community and are found in strains of bacteria, viruses, and in groups of fungi and protozoa.

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Image courtesy: obpmedical.com

Out of Sight, Out to Contaminate

The accidental discovery of penicillin by Alexander Flemming and subsequent discoveries of other antibiotics led to remedies for previously incurable diseases. With his discovery, Flemming stated, “The time may come when penicillin can be bought by anyone in the shops. Then there is the danger that the ignorant man may easily underdose himself, and by exposing his microbes to nonlethal quantities of the drug, make them resistant.” Unfortunately, he was right. While there was an exponential increase in the usage of antibiotics, the number of new ones being discovered fell on the opposite side of the curve. This made it difficult to combat strains of microbes that were resistant to existing medication. Now, several years later, the United Nations (UN) has declared superbugs as a worldwide threat. We are still at war with organisms that are as small as a dust particle and popularly used antimicrobials are failing us.

Frequently, antibiotics are administered to patients at doses below the necessary requirement or may be unnecessarily prescribed. These affect the body negatively in two ways.  At a larger scale, good bacteria present in the gut get destroyed which affects the functioning of the body in processes such as digestion. Although most of the targeted species are eliminated,  a few of them possess the genetic makeup that enables them to survive and turn into superbugs. They pass on their genes to their progeny and create colonies of infectious organisms inside the body, which the regular medication cannot combat. The transfer of genes takes place by conjugation by the formation of a bridge between proximal cells. Their ability to retain and reproduce the resistive genetic makeup makes superbugs lethal.

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Superbugs have also proven to be deadly in the agricultural and livestock spectrum. Animals are bred in close and tight spaces which makes them prone to illnesses that spread rapidly. Farmers fear the loss in productivity and get their livestock injected with antibiotics as a cure and also in the hopes of reducing the risk of infection in the future. Strains such as Salmonella and E.Coli that are responsible for causing foodborne infections, may not be treated and form superbugs. These antibiotics persist in the bodies of these animals even after they are reared and may enter the human body during consumption. As a result, humans too become susceptible to attacks by these highly potent beings.

The Path of Least Resistance

While a medical miracle can provide a powerful solution, the task of strengthening our forces to curb the risk that superbugs entail is up to us. On experiencing symptoms of an infection, one shouldn’t reach out for the nearest prescription of antibiotic medication. It is imperative to consume the right dosage of antibiotics and finish the entire course as advised by the doctor.

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Image courtesy: jamanetwork.com

There are advertisements that endorse household products that can keep us from falling sick. Continuous use of these chemicals masked in fragrant household items plays a role in developing potent superbugs. An alternative is to use organic or homemade products, which may not be cheap but use safer ingredients and are better in the longer run. While a lot of places do not sell plant or animal products under the tag of ‘Free of Antibiotics’ or any such label, organically grown products usually do not contain these chemicals. Shopping at a local market improves the quality of the food for consumption and improve the lives of the local farmers.

Drugs such as Colistin, which was once regarded as the last resort against incurable infection, have now unfortunately been rendered ineffective as superbugs effectively mutated against them, highlighting how dire the situation truly is. The World Health Organization has prioritised research projects to find highly efficient antibiotics against resistant organisms. Scientists are also looking into phage therapy using virus species that will change the genetic code of the bacteria as an effective way to neutralize this threat. Medical practices in hospitals, that serve as the breeding grounds for superbugs, need to be monitored and improved to ensure that the good bacteria survive and the resistant species don’t come in contact with newer antibiotics. Superbugs are getting stronger by the day. Significant research and technological advancements are all that can help humans survive this onslaught of evolved microbes, in this war of two worlds.

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