Four Ways That Superbugs Are Already Threatening Public Health


In September, federal health officials warned that the rise of antibiotic resistance represents an “urgent” public health threat, and noted that at least 2 million Americans are sickened by drug-resistant bacteria each year. The report estimated that about half the antibiotics currently prescribed to Americans are unnecessary, which is fueling the rise of drug resistance.

In fact, public health leaders have been sounding the alarm about “superbugs” for months — but this particular public health threat doesn’t always get very much attention. That may be partly because it can be hard to keep track of all the areas that are beginning to be affected by antibiotic resistance. Here are four serious threats that can all be traced back to the emergence of superbugs:

1. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria in meat is making people sick. Just last week, a report from researchers at Johns Hopkins warned that Congress isn’t doing enough to regulate the meat industry, and that’s ultimately leading to superbugs. Essentially, U.S. factory farms keep animals in tight and often unsanitary quarters, and try to prevent diseases from spreading by feeding them antibiotics. But over-using antibiotics in that way helps breed resistance to them. More than half of U.S. meat now contains bacteria that’s resistant to antibiotics. That means that foodborne illness, like the recent outbreak of salmonella, can contain strains that don’t respond to the drugs typically used to treat them.

2. Hospital patients are more likely to come down with serious infections. Public health officials are especially concerned about the superbugs that are spreading in U.S. hospitals, since they end up impacting people whose immune systems are already compromised. Last spring, the CDC raised the alarm about a “nightmare” superbug that ends up killing half of the people who contract it. New research suggests that antibiotic-resistant infections are on the rise among kids staying in the hospital. The CDC recommends stricter precautions in health care settings to prevent these bugs from spreading, particularly since there’s not much that can be done to treat the infections once people contract them. Some medical professionals are experimenting with new methods of sterilizing their facilities, like robots that zap superbugs with ultraviolet beams, but that’s still pretty expensive.

3. We’re running out ways to treat one of the most common STDs. Earlier this year, there was some overblown fearmongering about a “sex suberbug” spreading throughout the U.S. Those reports were exaggerated, but it’s true that antibiotic-resistant STDs are becoming a serious threat. There’s only one effective treatment left for gonorrhea, one of the most common sexually transmitted infections in the country — and it could be just a year or two before that drug loses its effectiveness, too. Gonorrhea mutates very quickly, so it’s hard for antibiotic development to keep up. Scientists are currently racing to develop more treatments for the STD.

4. Deadly diseases are starting to make a comeback. It’s not just sexually transmitted infections that are impacted by superbugs. Other potentially deadly diseases — like malaria, whooping cough, and tuberculosis — are also beginning to display antibiotic resistance. Tuberculosis, which kills more than a million people around the world each year, is the global health threat that scientists are most worried about. Dr. William Schaffner, the chairman of prevention at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told ABC News that travelers could easily import drug-resistant TB from developing countries. “It’s a very small word and the bacteria do not need passports,” he noted.

To combat this issue, federal health officials — along with public health figures from around the world — have called for more investment into antibiotic development. But research in this area has totally stalled, and no new antibiotic treatments have been developed for more than a decade. That’s largely because working to develop new drugs isn’t as profitable for the pharmaceutical industry. This past year, the U.S. government formed a partnership with a pharma giant in the hopes of spurring innovation.