Fighting a global war against super-bugs

May 2, 2014 by Liam Mitchell
"We need to regulate the use of antibiotics, including the proper prescription of antibiotics in patients and minimizing the use of antibiotics in animals," says Professor Jun Liu. Credit: reway 2007 via Flickr

It reads like the plot of Hollywood's next survival horror film, but it couldn't be more real. A first-of-its-kind report by the World Health Organization details the worldwide spread of drug-resistant super-bugs.

The results are startling.

"Without urgent, coordinated action by many stakeholders, the world is headed for a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries which have been treatable for decades can once again kill," says Dr. Keiji Fukuda, WHO's assistant director-general for health security. "Effective have been one of the pillars allowing us to live longer, live healthier and benefit from modern medicine. Unless we take significant actions to improve efforts to prevent infections and also change how we produce, prescribe and use antibiotics, the world will lose more and more of these global public health goods and the implications will be devastating."

The report found high rates of resistance have been observed in every region of the world in bacteria that cause common infections, such as , wound infections, bloodstream infections and pneumonia. It also notes there are significant gaps in surveillance, and a lack of standards for methodology, data sharing and coordination. The report, titled Antimicrobial resistance: global report on surveillance 2014, is available on the WHO website.

Writer Liam Mitchell spoke with Professor Jun Liu of the Faculty of Medicine's Department of Molecular Genetics about the report's findings. Liu's research investigates the treatment of tuberculosis (TB) and the increasing drug-resistant strains of TB that have been developing.

The World Health Organization report says very high rates of resistance have been observed in common bacteria around the world. How does resistance spread?

Simply speaking, drug resistant strains spread in the same way ordinary infections do. An individual who is infected with a drug-resistant bug can pass the resistant strain to other individuals, resulting in the spread of throughout a population.

The report notes that over the last 30 years, no major new types of antibiotics have been developed. Would a new type of antibiotics solve the problem?

Though the use of effective vaccines is the chief method for fighting drug resistant bugs, unless effective vaccines are already in place, we will need to develop . However, this has become increasingly difficult for a variety of reasons. For the new drugs to be effective, they would need to attack microorganisms at targets that have not been exploited by current drugs. This is one of the reasons why no new major type of drugs have been developed for the last 30 years, since most obvious drug targets have already been explored in the past. New drugs would help to control the current situation but would not be the ultimate solution since resistance to the new drugs will almost certainly occur.

How is U of T research contributing to a solution?

There are a number of researchers at U of T who are conducting cutting edge research in various aspects of infectious diseases, such as how certain bacteria acquire resistance genes from other species in a community, how microorganism pathogens infect host and evade host immune response and so on.

All of these fundamental understandings are crucial for identifying novel targets for the development of new drugs or for developing effective vaccines, which together, will ultimately lead to effective controls of infectious diseases.

The report states: "A post-antibiotic era - in which common infections and minor injuries can kill - far from being an apocalyptic fantasy, is instead a very real possibility for the 21st century." Is it time to panic?

The worst-case scenario would be the pre-antibiotic era we faced nearly a century ago. However, I am cautiously optimistic of our situation today due to the fact that our knowledge on has improved dramatically since then. With continuing support from governments and the public, I believe it is possible to come up with effective solutions to deal with the current drug resistance problem.

What steps can be taken to reduce the development of so-called drug-resistant super-bugs?

Drug resistance occurs naturally in microorganisms only at a low frequency. However, overuse or misuse of antibiotics in humans and animals can facilitate the appearance of drug-resistant strains. For example, patients who do not correctly complete the antibiotic regimens prescribed to them have a higher chance to develop drug resistance. Additionally, there is convincing data showing a strong correlation between the frequency of drug-resistance and the amount of antibiotics used.

Therefore, to reduce the development of drug-resistant super-bugs, we need to do several things. First, we need to regulate the use of antibiotics, including the proper prescription of antibiotics in patients and minimizing the use of antibiotics in animals. Secondly, we need to develop programs that educate patients on the importance of correct drug use and ensure that patients complete drug therapy on time. For example, directly observed therapy, short-course (DOTS) is a treatment for tuberculosis that requires patient supervision and support and is effective against multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis. Finally, we need to develop an effective surveillance system which allows accurate diagnosis and rapid detection of drug resistance. This will help prevent individuals who are infected with drug-resistant bugs from spreading it to others.

Explore further: Antibiotic resistance giving killer diseases free rein, WHO says (Update 2)

Related Stories

Antibiotic resistance giving killer diseases free rein, WHO says (Update 2)

April 30, 2014
The rise of superbugs, stoked by misuse of antibiotics and poor hospital hygiene, is enabling long-treatable diseases to once again become killers, the World Health Organization warned on Wednesday.

Number of patients admitted with antibiotic-resistant infections rising

March 25, 2014
The emergence of community-acquired infections, such as urinary tract infections (UTI), due to strains resistant to common antibiotics are on the rise, according to Rhode Island Hospital researchers. The study is published ...

Is there a way to slow the process of bacterial antibiotic resistance?

April 10, 2014
Continually under attack by noxious substances in their environments, bacteria have developed many clever mechanisms to survive. When confronted with an antibiotic, they can destroy it with enzymes, rendering it harmless. ...

Joining forces globally against drug resistant bacteria

April 2, 2014
Antibiotics have saved millions of lives from once deadly infectious diseases. But, misuse of antibiotics and other antimicrobials in humans and animals has led to bacteria evolving resistance.

3Qs: The effect of antibiotic resistant bacteria

October 2, 2013
Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report titled Antibiotic resistance threats in the United States, 2013, that served as a first-ever snapshot of the effect antibiotic resistant microbes ...

Improving detection of drug-resistant tuberculosis

May 2, 2012
(Medical Xpress) -- European researchers are developing new assays to detect drug resistant strains of Mycobacterium tuberculosis.

Recommended for you

A large-scale 'germ trap' solution for hospitals

July 26, 2017
When an infectious airborne illness strikes, some hospitals use negative pressure rooms to isolate and treat patients. These rooms use ventilation controls to keep germ-filled air contained rather than letting it circulate ...

Male hepatitis B patients suffer worse liver ailments, regardless of lifestyle

July 25, 2017
Why men with hepatitis B remain more than twice as likely to develop severe liver disease than women remains a mystery, even after a study led by a recent Drexel University graduate took lifestyle choices and environments ...

Researchers report new system to study chronic hepatitis B

July 25, 2017
Scientists from Princeton University's Department of Molecular Biology have successfully tested a cell-culture system that will allow researchers to perform laboratory-based studies of long-term hepatitis B virus (HBV) infections. ...

Mind-body therapies immediately reduce unmanageable pain in hospital patients

July 25, 2017
Mindfulness training and hypnotic suggestion significantly reduced acute pain experienced by hospital patients, according to a new study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

Research examines lung cell turnover as risk factor and target for treatment of influenza pneumonia

July 24, 2017
Influenza is a recurring global health threat that, according to the World Health Organization, is responsible for as many as 500,000 deaths every year, most due to influenza pneumonia, or viral pneumonia. Infection with ...

Scientists propose novel therapy to lessen risk of obesity-linked disease

July 24, 2017
With obesity related illnesses a global pandemic, researchers propose in the Journal of Clinical Investigation using a blood thinner to target molecular drivers of chronic metabolic inflammation in people eating high-fat ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.