Superbugs have garnered countless headlines lately — and for good reason. As Bloomberg reported this week, superbugs, bacteria that have grown resistant to antibiotics, are estimated to claim the lives of 700,000 worldwide every year data on cases in the United States and government agencies are complicit. A recent report by Rand Europe commissioned by the U.K. government found that by 2050, that number could rise to 10 million if measures are not taken to quell the rising threat of antimicrobial resistance (AMR). By comparison, the World Health Organization estimates 69,000 people die every year globally from opiate overdose.
News stories consistently crop up sounding alarms about discoveries of superbugs resistant to even the most potent antibiotics — some of which are saved for use only in the most dangerous, life-threatening cases. In truth, many of these headlines are grossly sensationalized by mainstream media in apparent attempts to fearmonger their audiences and draw traffic. For example, most superbugs are confined to and contracted at hospitals, meaning the "nightmare strains" many outlets have warned about are not crawling on street corners.
Nevertheless, the underlying problem is real.
Overzealous doctors eager to dole out antibiotics as quick fixes to patients' infections are undeniably responsible for part of the growing epidemic. According to a recent study by the CDC and Pew Charitable Trusts, in the U.S., antibiotics are unnecessary in ⅓ of cases where they're prescribed. That amounts to roughly 47 million excess prescriptions.
In other countries, antibiotics are available for purchase over the counter, another factor that contributes to their overuse.
But equally, if not more concerning, is Big Pharma's dominion over the United States' and world's food supply. One of the biggest factors contributing to the growth of superbugs is the heavy-handed use of human antibiotics in livestock intended for human consumption.
"In 2014, 60 percent of sales of the antibiotics sold for livestock were medically important to humans, according to the FDA. They're also popular overseas: The global animal antibiotics market should reach $4.1 billion by 2018, according to one study from researcher Markets and Markets."This unsettling growth trend has dire implications for human health.
According to an analysis by the FDA, sales of antibiotics for use in livestock increased 23 percent between 2009 and 2014. Further, on Monday, the Guardian reported that new data published by the European Medicines Agency found "use of some of the strongest antibiotics available to treat life-threatening infections has risen to record levels on European farms."
A report released last month by a group of environmental and consumer groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Friends of the Earth, the Consumers Union, the Center for Food Safety, and the Food Animal Concerns Trust explained some of the biggest problems with the use of human antibiotics in animals:
"These drugs are often given to animals that are not sick to accelerate weight gain and prevent diseases stemming from poor diets and crowded, stressful and dirty conditions. Approximately 96 percent of the antibiotics sold for animal use are added to feed and water, the preferred way to deliver antibiotics to large flocks or herds of animals at once."They note the addition of drugs to feed and water is playing a powerful role in the growth of superbugs:
"This practice is a key contributor to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria - sometimes called 'superbugs' - which can escape the farm and spread into communities through air, water, soil, meat, and even workers. Resistant superbugs can make us sick, or pass on resistance to other bacteria which can make us sick."Though, according to the same report, an increasing number of restaurants and fast food establishments are decreasing their use of meats that contain antibiotics, the threat is still immediate.
As the FDA moves to increase regulations on human antibiotic use in animals, however, pharmaceutical companies are launching "webinars" to teach farmers how to continue their use of antibiotics without violating the stricter rules. In other countries, pharmaceutical sales of antibiotics destined for livestock continue.
"If some of the biggest responsible parties - namely the companies making the products - are still selling the antibiotics in other countries, it just underscores that this has to be a change that happens across the entire world," says David Wallinga, senior health official and physician at the National Resources Defense Council. "And the companies bear a big responsibility for that approach."
The short-term problem is further compounded by the current lack of incentive drug companies have to produce better antibiotics. Because they are expensive to make and do not generate the same profits as cancer drugs, for example, companies are slow to move on developing stronger antibiotics to fight evolving superbugs.
Even so, it appears that course of action might only inspire stronger superbugs as they evolve to survive increasingly powerful drugs. Nevertheless, some solutions are emerging. For example, Australian researchers announced this week that Tasmanian devil's milk is a promising treatment for aggressive bacterial infections.
According to Venki Ramakrishnan, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist based at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology at the University of Cambridge, there are several viable approaches to curbing the growing problem. First, he explains, antibiotic prescriptions should be limited, and the drugs prescribed should be targeted specifically to the infection in question. He also says bacteriophages, viruses that directly attack bacteria, could be useful. Ramakrishnan believes antibiotic use in livestock must be reduced and suggests vaccines could also be helpful but notes public hygiene is an essential factor in reducing the spread of bacteria.
"I am an optimist," he said when asked if the situation could be remedied.
"I think that when things get serious, people have a habit of responding. And I'm hoping that people don't wait for a big crisis to respond because then a lot of people will die before things will get corrected and improve."