How (Not) to Grow a Superbug

Recently, a local study by NUS students turned up troubling news about our view of antibiotics.

Out of the 914 patients surveyed at 24 GP clinics, more than 66% did not know that antibiotics don’t work against virus infections. About 33% expected to be given antibiotics for common health issues, and about 16% asked for antibiotics or visit another doctor if it was not prescribed to them. Finally, about 10% stored antibiotics at home, and took pills left over from previous courses.

While these may sound very commonsensical, in reality each time any of us does any of these, we give our most deadly adversary – tiny germs – a gradual advantage in the kill-or-be-killed arms race that is evolution.  

As bacteria species constantly mutate, the organisms acquire a variety of abilities (like tiny evil X-Men). While a new antibiotic might destroy most of them, some might survive because of mutated genes. Then they pass these genes to the next generations, making their species immune to our drugs in a very short period of time.

Something like this:

One worrisome example involves colistin, a powerful “last resort” drug that is used when the strongest antibiotics fail. In late 2015, the first transferrable gene for colistin resistance was found in a bacteria. Worse still, this genetic data is stored in a plasmid – a piece of DNA easily transferred between bacteria species – which potentially opens the door for multiple future strains of colistin-resistant superbugs.

A world of drug-resistant superbugs could be fatal news for anyone who goes under the knife as many post-op patients come down with infections, even on antibiotics. Scientists have described it as a return to the dark ages of medicine, as any bad injury, burn, or wound could and probably would, kill you if it got infected by a superbug. There would effectively be no more organ transplants, and anyone with a suppressed immune system from chemo, pneumonia, TB or a host of other problems would likely die. Our cushy First World life expectancy would fall significantly.

As private doctors stand to gain financially by drug prescriptions, and a sizeable proportion of Singaporeans expect antibiotics anyway, the situation looks ripe for substantial antibiotics abuse locally, thus in our own little way helping accelerate the arrival of superbugs globally, which when they appear, must be fought by our immune systems alone with little or no aid from medicines we all helped render obsolete.

How to avoid a superbug infection

  • Learn the signs of a viral / bacterial infection (antibiotics don’t work on viral infections)
    • Virus
      • Low grade fever (37-38ºC)
      • Headache (sharp pulsing pain/dull ache) at the forehead
      • Clear and runny phlegm
      • Symptoms spread throughout body
      • Tend to get better each day
      • Generally goes away by itself in 3-10 days
    • Bacteria
      • High grade fever (38.3ºC or more)
      • Swollen lymph nodes
      • Symptoms stay in one part of the body
      • May worsen, usually only goes away with medication
      • Generally last 5-14 days with medication
  • Visit hospitals only when absolutely necessary (they’re breeding grounds for superbugs)
  • Avoid medical tourism (same as above)