Superbugs are on the Rise, and the Future of Antibiotics is at Stake

Ouch. I scratched myself shaving this morning. 

It stung a little. Just to be safe I washed it off and then put a dab of antibiotic ointment on it. No problem. 

But the question being asked more and more is: for how long will the antibiotic method continue to work? 

The sad fact is we may be entering what scientists are calling the post-antibiotic era. If this is the case, that scratch I happened to get while shaving this morning could turn out to be fatal. It’s all thanks to superbugs—more formally known as drug-resistant bacteria.  

Here’s the deal. Everything is covered with bacteria; from your cell phone to the doorknob to the grocery cart. There are plenty of bacteria all over your skin and even inside of you. Fortunately, most are either a good kind of bacteria or simply not harmful to us. 

Alexander Fleming helped us take care of the not-so-good kind when he discovered the first antibiotic. It was actually an accident. 

While cleaning his lab he found a petri dish had become contaminated with mold. But interestingly, all of the bacteria had died. Like any good scientist, he studied it and discovered the fungus was a strain of penicillium. The antibiotic that was isolated from it was penicillin. 

You’d think all was well after that and the world now had a way to kill those bad bugs. But even in 1945, not long after his discovery, Fleming began to see bacteria becoming resistant to penicillin. 

Some two million people become infected with anti-biotic resistant bacteria, and 23,000 of them die. 

How does that happen? 

Sometimes, random mutations result in anti-antibiotic ability. In other cases, bacteria are able to swap genes in a process called gene transfer. Bacteria, it turns out, are pretty good at surviving. 

Here’s the catch. With bacteria figuring out how to beat antibiotics within a few years of the new release of a drug, most drug companies aren’t motivated to invest the billions of dollars to create a new drug. In fact, in 2004, there were only five antibiotics in development. 

That means all of us need to do our part. Misuse of antibiotics is a big contributor to the threat of superbugs. 

You don’t need an antibiotic for the common cold. Antibiotics don’t kill viruses. So don’t pressure your doctor for a prescription if it’s not needed. 

Also, if the doctor does prescribe, finish the prescription, even if you are feeling better before the medicine is gone. 

And perhaps the best thing for all of us to do is try not to get infected in the first place. 

That means, yes, wash your hands.

—Frank Graff

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on Sci Tech Now North Carolina, a weekly science series that airs Tuesdays on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog!

Related Resources:

 Sign Up for the Science E-Newsletter!