Rise of the superbugs

Rise of the superbugs

rise of the superbugs

Your role in the fight against antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Everyone knows about antibiotic-resistant bugs: they’re lurking in hospitals, close to home, but not too close for us to pay much attention. In South Africa, certain strands of tuberculosis have proved difficult to treat, and perhaps you should be declining the antibiotic script the doctor has prescribed for that niggling cold. But do people really understand what humanity is up against?

Last year the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the rise of superbugs as the world’s top health priority – above fighting cancer or HIV and Aids. Currently, superbugs and drug-resistant bacteria lead to the deaths of around 700 000 people globally each year, and research indicates this could head into millions annually by 2050.

Why we have superbugs

The revolutionary discovery of penicillin in 1928, and subsequent creation of antibiotics over the decades and up until the 1980s, has allowed the treatment of a variety of bacterial infections that previously led to many deaths. However, bacteria are resilient microorganisms, and over the past 100 years they’ve learnt to adapt to antibiotics. Superbugs are clever strands of bacteria that can outsmart antibiotics by creating new strategies and mechanisms within their cells to guard against attack, leaving the drugs ineffective and allowing bacteria to multiply.

Scientists worldwide are concerned about the ongoing overuse and misuse of antibiotics – a major cause of antibiotic resistance. Most antibiotic use globally, however, takes place in livestock farmed for human consumption, where antibiotics are given to animals not only to prevent illness, but to promote growth too. With over 80% of antibiotics being used in agriculture, our environment has become saturated with the drugs, which leave the animal through their faeces and urine, and contaminate water tables and soil, as well as enter humans through consumption of the meat. This proliferation of antibiotics then comes into contact with bacteria, such as E. coli and salmonella, causing them to morph into superbugs. The superbugs grow and develop in the animals we eat, and therefore in humans. In addition,
a 30-year void in the development of new drugs to treat these super-bacteria has resulted in a large-scale problem for international health.

What can you do?


While it’s the responsibility of governments to assist in protecting their people from the rapid growth of superbugs, the individual can make a difference too. Here are five steps to help:

  1. If a healthcare professional prescribes you antibiotics, question whether it’s the correct treatment. Antibiotics are not effective in fighting off colds, flu or viruses, and are often incorrectly prescribed for these conditions.
  2. If you’re given antibiotics, use them correctly, finishing the course. Never share antibiotics or use
    expired medication.
  3. Watch personal hygiene to prevent the spread and contamination of superbugs, especially when visiting
    areas such as hospitals.
  4. Wash all food and fresh produce thoroughly before eating, even if you’ll be peeling it. Superbugs have been found to contaminate fruit and vegetables along the production chain. Cook all meat and animal products before consuming.
  5. Choose your meat and dairy wisely. Opt for suppliers who do not use routine antibiotics in their animal feed and ask restaurants you visit whether they use meat products from antibiotic-free farms.


Priority pathogens

In 2017, WHO established a list of 12 superbugs that pose a significant risk to human health, many of which have already evolved into superbugs. The list is divided into priority categories, with the critical bugs needing the most urgent attention and development of new therapies to treat them. The top three bugs (based on the level of drug resistance for each, the deaths they cause, the frequency with which people become infected outside hospitals,
and the cost to healthcare systems to treat them) mostly affect hospital patients with compromised immune systems. Many of the drug-resistant bacteria lead to complications such as pneumonia, bloodstream infections, meningitis, wound and surgical site infections, and urinary tract infections.

* Drug-resistant tuberculosis (TB) is not included on the list as programmes are already underway to find a new treatment for this disease, which caused an estimated 240 000 deaths in 2016. Drug-resistant TB and HIV strands
are some of South Africa’s leading health concerns.


The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, and treatment. Always consult Your GP or a doctor for specific information regarding your health.

Joni van der Merwe

About Joni van der Merwe

Your Family’s Digital editor. Avid retweeter. When I’m not scrolling Instagram you’ll find me in my garden. Keen on DIY and I don’t believe there’s anything that can’t be fixed with some chalk paint.


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