"Superbugs—Fact or Fiction" By Allen Weiss, MD, MBA, President and CEO

Superbugs—Fact or Fiction

December 15, 2010 - Over the past few months there have been reports of a new “superbug” spreading around the globe. This superbug is resistant to many antibiotics, which is of major concern; fortunately, however, the bug does not cause more severe or new diseases.

One of the causes for these new drug-resistant infections is medical tourism. The problem is worsening particularly as a result of individuals from Europe and America seeking plastic surgery in India, according to a Reuters news report earlier this year. Three patients from the United States have been diagnosed with this “bug;” all had recent medical care in India, where people often travel in search of affordable medical care. The name of the gene which is attached to the superbug is New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase, shortened to NDM-1.

NDM-1 makes ordinary bacteria highly resistant to most antibiotics, including the most powerful classes of the newer infection-fighting drugs, originally developed to control just this sort of resistance. The CDC—Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta—states that the NDM-1 gene confers a specific mechanism of resistance which can be easily transferred from one type of bacteria to another.

It is normal for people to have some 100 trillion bacteria on and in their bodies at all times. One concern is that the NDM-1 gene will be shared among different types of bacteria in the same individual, in addition to spreading from person to person.

In many parts of the world antibiotics are available on an over-the-counter basis and are used freely and indiscriminately. Drinking water is also contaminated with antibiotics. Drugs are introduced into the food chain as cows, pigs, chickens, and fish are often treated with antibiotics to promote animal growth.

There has also been an inappropriate increase in the use of antibiotics as patients seek treatment for common conditions such as a cold, which is a virus. An estimated one-third of people believe that antibiotics are effective for the common cold; this is not true! Good hand hygiene, general sanitary conditions, and overall good health prevent more infections than antibiotics ever treat.

Many large pharmaceutical firms have renewed the search for new, innovative, and more effective antibiotics. Globally, the need has long been recognized that new antibiotics are needed as the existing bugs evolve by developing resistance. This cycle, which started in the mid 1940s with the development of Penicillin, will continue to evolve. Penicillin was a huge addition to the medical arsenal at that time, since only sulfa was available before.

We, as a society, need to be smart, prudent and pro-active so we don't create new infections which we can't control. Getting back to a simpler time with less complicated diseases and treatments will be beneficial for all concerned. This argues for simple preventive measures as opposed to complicated treatments for avoidable problems.

We also need to be mindful that bacteria and other organisms don't respect artificial geographic boundaries. We are now in a global society in so many ways . . . including medical diseases and treatments.

Stay clean, avoid being run down, use antibiotics prudently, and if you need treatment be sure to get the right treatment for the appropriate time.

Past Health Advice Articles

Dr. Allen Weiss is CEO & President of the NCH Healthcare System. He is board certified in Internal Medicine, Rheumatology and Geriatrics, and was in private practice in Naples, Florida from 1977 - 2000. Dr. Weiss is active in a variety of professional organizations and boards, and has been published in numerous medical journals, including the American Journal of Medicine and the Journal of Clinical Investigation.