5 Things You Need to Know About: Superbugs

Oct 12, 2010
Exec. Prod. of Franchises & Series. He previously reported for HuffPost, L.A. Daily Journal, and Biloxi Sun-Herald.
(Photo: Reuters Pictures).

Hypochondriacs take note: this ain't a story for you. 

News of dire infections caused by germs that are resistant to almost all known antibiotics has stoked fears of a new crop of so-called "superbugs" infesting the globe.

The latest scare has been prompted by germs carrying the gene "NDM-1."

NDM-1 can exist in bacteria that are relatively common, such as E. coli.

So it might already be everywhere!

But before you go buy your hazmat suit and sterile bubble, here are five things you need to know about the new superbugs.

1. They Came From South Asia

Many experts agree that medical tourism—patients seeking cut-rate cosmetic surgery and other procedures they can't afford in their home countries—is the culprit behind the spread of NDM-1. Every U.S. patient diagnosed with an NDM-1 infection had recently traveled to India or Pakistan for medical care. According to The Washington Post, the Indian government says the superbug scare is part of a Western plot to undercut its booming medical tourism industry, which is expected to generate annual revenues of $2.4 billion by 2012.

2. Medical Science Doesn't Have Much That Can Defeat Them

NDM-1 makes normal infections almost invincible to the current antibiotic arsenal. ABC News reported that even carbapenems—the most powerful class of antibiotics, usually reserved for the most severe cases—are powerless against NDM-1. Experts say no new drugs are being developed to fight it.

3. Very Few People Have Been Infected—Yet

Only three cases of NDM-1 infections have been reported so far in the U.S. Cases overseas have also been relatively rare, almost exclusively limited to people who went overseas for medical procedures. The gene has so far not jumped to germs that are spread by coughing and sneezing. The three infected U.S. patients did not spread it to others. So how does NDM-1 spread? Food prep, bodily fluids, medical procedures. Still, medical experts are extremely worried. NDM-1 and other superbugs are highly adaptable, and could spread if precautionary measures are not taken. 

4. There Are Other Superbugs

Yup. NDM-1 isn't the only big, bad, antibiotic-taunting bug on the scene these days. In September, USA Today reported that another drug-resistant superbug—KPC—had spread to 35 states, as well as Israel. Then there's MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), which started as the scourge of hospitals and health centers, and is now common among high school athletes, kids in daycare, and prisoners. A few available drugs treat MRSA, but it's a tough fighter, even among relatively healthy people.

5. There Are Ways to Inhibit Their Spread

Well, frog skin might provide new drugs to fight the superbugs. In addition, medical experts advise people to wash their hands as often as possible—especially after preparing food or using the restroom. Medical providers need to ensure they also thoroughly wash their hands, and properly sterilize medical equipment.

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