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8th September 2016

Superbugs: have we built kryptonite on Earth?

If you experienced heart failure or diabetes, fought HIV, underwent heavy surgery and survived, chances are that antibiotics have already saved your life.

Since their discovery, antibiotics have been the equivalent of Superman on Earth: saving lives, giving hope, making the world a safer place. For now, this superhero is still coming to our rescue. But for how much longer?

Stop building kryptonite walls

It’s well known that antibiotics are the medicines that help the immune system fight against bacterial infection. Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR), on the other hand, is the microbes’ capacity to survive the antibiotics’ attacks, making them ineffective. If we think of the Superman comic book series, AMR is to antibiotics what kryptonite is to Superman: an element that neutralizes the superhero’s powers.

Far from science fiction, AMR is happening right now. Everyone from the World Health Organization  to chief medical officers, CNN, The White House and Ted is covering the subject. There’s even a documentary airing on Netflix about it. AMR is making the headlines — and for good reasons.

Yearly, 700.000 people are thought to die because of AMR. This did not happen all of a sudden, but it is rather the consequence of collective faulty behaviors. For instance, in some places 80% of antibiotics go to the livestock and 68% of patients don’t complete their antibiotics treatment. By using antibiotics carelessly (to treat viral infections, for a common cold, or simply to accelerate food growth), we’re giving bacteria the opportunity to learn how to fight and survive our superpower. We’re helping microbes build walls of kryptonite.

Gradually, our defense is getting weaker. By 2050, the number of deaths caused by superbugs (antibiotic resistant bacteria), is estimated to rise at 10 million per year.

Superman vs. superbugs

The Superman vs. superbugs fight has started and the stakes are high. In terms of human and economic losses, we’re looking at numbers followed by too many zeros.

Around the world, doctors, healthcare organisations, policy makers and economists are researching the superbugs’ global threat, and are putting in place programs to educate the population and limit the spread of AMR. There are different action plans suggested by WHO, European Commission, and national governments, to name just a few. Some require ampler prevention measures and better diagnostic options, while others suggest limiting the usage of antibiotics by seeing them as a finite natural resource or public goods.

Progress is being made, but these efforts must be backed by all of us — we can help through being aware, trying our best to prevent disease and stop misusing antibiotics. Antimicrobial resistance is not about “other people’s lives”. It’s mine and yours and our loved ones’. The more any of us misuses antibiotics, the more bacteria will learn how to live with it. We risk becoming kryptonite on Earth.

At the end of the day, it’s a Superman vs. superbugs world and we do have the power to choose sides.