Fighting Superbugs

August 24, 2007 • Volume 17, Issue 29
Are disease-resistant bacteria becoming unstoppable?
By Marcia Clemmitt

Introduction

Photo of Bryce Smith, a youngster from Santee, Calif., who almost died after contracting what doctors belatedly identified as the MRSA superbug. (Infectious Disease Society of America)
Bryce Smith, a youngster from Santee, Calif., almost died after contracting what doctors belatedly identified as the MRSA superbug. He recovered after 49 days in intensive care. (Infectious Disease Society of America)

Antibiotics — the wonder drugs of the 20th century — are gradually losing their clout. Bacteria naturally develop resistance to antimicrobial drugs. In recent years, however, overuse of antibiotics has caused a growing number of staphylococcus bacteria to evolve into disease-causing “superbugs” resistant to drugs like methicillin. Hospital patients with MRSA — a potent antibiotic-resistant staph infection — are four times as likely to die as other patients. Moreover, while most superbugs once thrived only in hospitals, new strains outside health facilities are killing healthy people. Adding to the concerns of public-health officials, drug companies are developing few new antimicrobials. Some activists urge strong curbs on all antimicrobial use, including to promote fast growth in farm animals. Others oppose legal requirements for animal or human antibiotics, arguing that voluntary efforts are better able to keep pace with the fast-evolving world of microbes.

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