by Sara Tipton
“Nightmare bacteria” with unusual resistance to antibiotics of last resort were found more than 200 times in the United States last year in a first-of-its-kind hunt to see how much of a threat these rare cases have become. It’s also important to realize that there are steps that can be taken to help stem the evolution of these superbugs and remain healthy.
The pipes of hospitals carrying away the infections of the sick are bound to be quite disturbing places, however, scientists dared to snoop around in them anyway and found that they can fuel superbugs: antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The Centers for Disease Control even announced that they found 200 types of antibiotic-resistant bacteria lurking around – and hospitals seem to be the perfect breeding grounds.
The genetic building blocks for antibiotic resistance intermingle freely in the pipes connected to the hospital rooms of those who are sick with viruses and bacterial infections, according to a study published in the journal mBio. That DNA can give superbugs the power to defeat modern medicines and threaten the lives of other patients.
In a new study, published by The American Society for Microbiology, scientists determined that antibiotic-resistant bacteria are bred in the plumbing of hospitals. The study, titled Genomic Analysis of Hospital Plumbing Reveals Diverse Reservoir of Bacterial Plasmids Conferring Carbapenem Resistance found that even when hospitals themselves are impeccably clean of infectious bacteria and viruses, the pipes that carry away those micro-organisms are not.
Last year, public health labs around the United States were asked to watch for and quickly respond to cases of advanced antibiotic resistance, especially to some last-resort antibiotics called carbapenems. Carbapenemase-producing organisms (CPOs) are a global concern because of the morbidity and mortality associated with these resistant Gram-negative bacteria.
In the first nine months of the year, more than 5,770 samples were tested for these “nightmare bacteria,” as the CDC so lovingly calls them, and about 25% were found to have genes that make them hard to treat and easy to share their resistance with other types of bacteria. Of these, 221 had unusual genes that conferred resistance. The cases were scattered throughout 27 states.
“Essentially, we found nightmare bacteria in your backyard,” said the CDC’s Anne Schuchat. “These verge on untreatable infections,” she added, where the only option may be supportive care such as intravenous fluids and machines to maintain life to give the patient a chance to recover. About 2 million Americans get infections from antibiotic-resistant bacteria each year and of those, 23,000 die,Schuchat said.
It is inevitable that each drug will lose its ability to kill disease-causing bacteria over time, says Marc Sprenger, the Director of the World Health Organization’s secretariat for antimicrobial resistance. This is because bacteria, through natural selection and genetic adaptation, become resistant to antibiotics. Essentially, bacteria, like most living things, evolve for survival.
The best way to prepare for any superbug (a bacteria that is resistant to antibiotics) is to prevent the human body from contracting an infection and from rejecting antibiotic medications.
The one thing most can do is pretty simple: don’t take an antibiotic for a viral infection, such as the cold or the flu. Humans are speeding up the process of transforming all bacteria into drug-resistant superbugs by overusing antibiotics. Today, it is estimated that in half of all cases, antibiotics are prescribed for conditions caused by viruses, where they do no good. You can also do more to prevent infections in the first place by ensuring your hands, instruments, and environment are clean, Sprenger said.
If you are prescribed an antibiotic, don’t feel stressed about asking your doctor if the medication is necessary. Remember, often antibiotics are prescribed for viral infections, which leads to resistance. Also, make sure to completely finish the antibiotics and take them as directed if you have a confirmed bacterial infection. Not finishing the medication can lead to the evolution of drug-resistant bacteria.
Humans are also in the bad habit of overusing antibiotics in the agricultural sector. Misuse of antibiotics in livestock, aquaculture, and crops is a key factor contributing to antibiotic resistance and its spread into the environment, the food chain, and human beings. Clean and uncrowded living conditions for the animals can reduce the need to use antibiotics. Not only are clean conditions ideal for healthy livestock, those health benefits will transfer to humans upon consumption.
The overall theme is to maintain a clean environment for yourself and your animals, wash your hands often, only use antibiotics when absolutely necessary, and if antibiotics are necessary, finish the medication and take as directed by your doctor.