Human vs superbug: Too late to turn the tide?

Open navigator

Please turn on JavaScript. Media requires JavaScript to play.

1. Antibiotics: End of the line

Antibiotics are important medicines that have been used to treat bacterial infections for 70 years. They work by either disrupting processes bacteria need to survive or preventing them from reproducing.

But these drugs are becoming less and less effective against bacterial infections and could one day run out. Right now there aren’t any alternatives that could take their place.

It’s conceivable that in 20 years, treatments such as chemotherapy and simple surgery will become impossible because they rely on antibiotics. We are facing a future where a cough or cut could kill once again.

2. How a bug becomes a superbug

So how do bacteria become resistant to antibiotics in the first place? At a molecular level these tiny organisms are finding ways to outsmart the drugs designed to kill them. In the case of ‘superbugs’ they don’t just survive - they thrive.

MRSA bacteria – SEM by Science Photo Library

1/6: In a large population of bacteria, there may be some cells that aren’t affected by an antibiotic due to natural resistance or chance mutations.

Science Photo Library (SPL)

MRSA drug-resistant bacteria – SEM, by Science Photo Library

2/6: When a patient is given an antibiotic to kill a bacterial infection, these few drug-resistant bacteria will survive.



3/6: The resistant bacteria are left to reproduce, creating more bacteria that are not affected by the drug. The body’s natural defences struggle to deal with the onslaught, which can be seen here, as MRSA bacteria overwhelm a white blood cell (red).



4/6: Antibiotic resistance can spread quickly within a population as some bacteria can produce another generation in as little as 20 minutes. It can also be passed from one bacterium to another by direct contact or by bridge-like links between cells.

Dr Linda Stannard, UCT/SPL


5/6: Viruses called ‘bacteriophages’ can also transfer drug-resistance between two closely related bacteria. The resistance traits from a bacterium are packed into the virus infecting the cell and injected into any new bacteria the virus attacks.

Eye of Science/SPL

Scientist examining cultures, by Getty Images

6/6: If a strain of bacteria carries several drug-resistant genes it is known as a ‘superbug’. Superbugs, like MRSA, can be a big problem for healthcare providers as fewer antibiotics can kill the bacteria and stop them from multiplying.

Getty Images

3. We make the problem worse

This content uses functionality that is not supported by your current browser. Consider upgrading your browser.

Our actions speed up antibiotic resistance in bacteria, especially in the areas of farming and healthcare. Resistance tends to develop where bacteria are frequently exposed to antibiotics and when there are lots of animal or human hosts. Resistant bacteria can spread from farms and hospitals to the public both directly and indirectly, via the water supply. People then pass the bacteria between themselves, by coughing or contact with unwashed hands.

4. The drugs are running out

No new classes of antibiotics have been discovered since 1987

Data source: Adapted from Silver, L.L. Challenges of Antibacterial Discovery. In Clinical Microbiology Reviews, 2011, 24:71-109.

Pharmaceutical research hasn't kept up with the growing resistance of bacteria to antibiotics. No new types (classes) of antibiotics have been discovered for 25 years and some strains of bacteria now are unharmed by nearly all the drugs designed to kill them, making infections by these bacteria almost untreatable. Experts have warned we are decades behind in the race against the superbugs. We've already exploited the most obvious naturally occurring antibiotics. So creating new ones requires much more time and ingenuity, but currently there is little financial incentive to do so. Pharmaceutical companies target chronic illnesses to maximise potential profits from new drugs.

5. Tackling the problem today

Superbugs are now a major global health threat with multi-drug resistant bacteria causing around 400,000 infections and 25,000 deaths in Europe every year.

Although better monitoring and hygiene has reduced levels of life-threatening MRSA and C. difficile in UK hospitals, other resistant strains of bacteria are now on the rise. Cases of E. coli and Klebsiella have increased by two-thirds in recent years, making them the most frequent cause of hospital-acquired infection in Britain.

In 2013, the Department of Health responded to the crisis by launching a five-year Antimicrobial Resistance Strategy. This is working to:

Understand antibiotic resistance

More molecular data is being collected on how bacteria become resistant to drugs to understand how the trait evolves and spreads. Sharing the data locally, nationally and globally will help all researchers in this field.

Conserve our existing drugs

Hospitals are preventing bacterial infections by improving hygiene practice. Health workers are being taught about the problem of antibiotic resistance and doctors are being encouraged not to over-prescribe antibiotics.

Encourage new therapies

Could the development of new antibiotics be encouraged by the government? By simplifying how they are licensed and providing financial incentives, more drugs could be discovered.

6. Future solutions for winning the war

How can we beat the rise of superbug resistance? Explore four of the possible solutions.

Know what we’re treating

Image: Getty Images

You selected

Know what we’re treating

Improve diagnostic tests so they detect if an infection is bacterial or viral within one hour. This could drastically reduce antibiotic prescriptions.

Create new drugs

You selected

Create new drugs

Antibiotics are expensive to develop, yet we've only examined the chemicals from 1% of the world’s bacteria to make them. There could be many more out there.

Change farmers’ practices

Image: Getty Images

You selected

Change farmers’ practices

Reduce intensive farming to limit the spread of animal infections and need for antibiotics. Health experts say antibiotics shouldn't be used for animal growth.

Use viruses

Image: Getty Images

You selected

Use viruses

Phage therapy uses viruses called bacteriophages to infect and kill bacteria. This has shown promise in Russia but doesn’t yet pass safety rules in the West.