The World Health Organization (WHO) is warning the medical community that new strains of antibiotic-resistant superbugs are brewing. The organization recently released a report that calls out 12 families of bacteria that pose a rising threat to human health, urging pharmaceutical researchers and hospital infection-control specialists to begin investigating new ways to ward off these dangerous pathogens.

The latest crop of superbugs

According to the Center for Disease Control, each year in the United States, at least 2 million people become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. Of those affected by these “superbugs”, over 23,000 die on an annual basis as a direct result of the infections. Many additional fatalities occur due to conditions that are complicated by an antibiotic-resistant infection. And The WHO warns that if medical professionals don’t soon take action, these numbers may rise.

The WHO divided their list of potential superbug bacteria into three categories, ranking each strand in terms of how urgent a need for new antibiotics is – critical, high, and medium priority.

The critical tier

Three pathogens were listed as immediate priority:

  • Acinetobacter baumannii
  • Pseudomonas aeruginosa
  • Members of the Enterobacteriaceae family (which includes bacteria such as E.coli)

The bacteria that made the critical priority list include multidrug resistant strands that typically pose the highest risk in places like hospitals, nursing homes, and among patients that require medical tools, such as catheters and ventilators. These strands are resistant to a multitude of antibiotics, such as carbapenems and 3rd generation cephalosporins, which are the best line of defense against pathogens that are resistant to multiple drugs. Left untreated, these bacteria can lead to severe infections of the bloodstream and pneumonia.

High priority

  • Staphylococcus aureus (often referred to as MRSA, is responsible for 1/3 of flesh-eating bacterial infections in the US.)
  • Enterococcus faecium
  • Helicobacter pylori
  • Campylobacter
  • Salmonellae
  • Neisseria gonorrhoeae (responsible for causing gonorrhea)

Medium priority

  • Streptococcus pneumoniae
  • Haemophilus influenzae
  • Shigella

The bacteria in the high and medium priority list are becoming increasingly resistant to various strains of antibiotics. These pathogens are often responsible for ailments such as gonorrhea and food poisoning (due to bacteria like salmonella).

A call out to researchers

According to the WHO, antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today. It is the organization’s hope that by releasing this information to medical professionals, it will inspire them to begin production on new types of antibiotics that can help to fight off these budding superbugs.

“This list is a new tool to ensure R&D (research and development) responds to urgent public health needs,” explains Dr. Marie-Paule Kieny, WHO’s Assistant Director-General for Health Systems and Innovation. “Antibiotic resistance is growing, and we are fast running out of treatment options. If we leave it to market forces alone, the new antibiotics we most urgently need are not going to be developed in time.”

Antibiotic Overuse and Abuse

Antibiotic resistance occurs when an antibiotic has lost its ability to effectively control or kill a strain of bacteria. The “resistant” bacteria are thus able to continue to multiple, even in the presence of a previously therapeutic antibiotic. While experts note that antibiotic resistance is a phenomenon that can happen naturally over time, the biggest cause of the crisis today is the overuse and abuse of antibiotics.

This can happen when doctors overprescribe antibiotics, especially for the wrong conditions – for example, treating a normal sore throat caused by a virus with an antibiotic meant for strep throat. Antibiotic abuse can also occur when patients don’t follow the entire course of their treatment. Even though symptoms may subside after starting antibiotic treatment, it is vitally important to complete the entire dose. Stopping treatment early may allow remaining bacteria to mutate and become resistant.

The antibiotic resistance crisis

Antibiotic resistance is not unique to the United States – this has become one of the forefront global health issues. According to a report by The Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics, and Policy, there are two main cause of the overuse of antibiotics:

  • Rising incomes are increasing access to antibiotics. That is saving lives but also increasing use— both appropriate and inappropriate,— which in turn is driving resistance.
  • An increased demand for animal protein and resulting intensification of food animal production is leading to greater use of antibiotics in agriculture, again driving resistance.

Antibiotics fall into different classes that are each used to treat different types of bacteria. Penicillin antibiotics, like amoxicillin, are among the most well known antibiotics and treat a broad range of internal infections. Tetracyclines, another class that also includes doxycycline, are often used to treat skin conditions like acne and rosacea. Proper antibiotic use requires prescribing the appropriate class of drugs for every case.

How to protect yourself from superbugs

Fighting off antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria on a macro level involves the government coming up with new treatment options. There are, however, things you can do in your daily life to reduce your chances of coming down with a superbug.

  1. Thoroughly wash fruits and vegetables to avoid coming into contact with harmful bacteria
  1. Wash your hands with soap and water throughout the day, especially after leaving a public place such as a restroom or hospital. Experts recommend lathering up for 15 seconds.
  1. Only take antibiotics when necessary. Some doctors may offer them as an option but make sure that they are really needed before beginning a course of them.
  1. Keep your immune system strong. Eat a nutritious/balanced diet, exercise, and keep stress at bay.
  1. Be especially careful overseas, as superbug bacteria can be more prevalent in the food and water supplies abroad.
  1. Don’t panic. According to Dr. Brad Spellberg, an infectious diseases specialist at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, the chances of catching a superbug in your everyday life (and outside of a hospital environment) are slim. “For the average healthy person walking down the street? Those organisms are not much of a threat,” he explains.