In 1928, Alexander Fleming discovered Penicillin, the first antibiotic. No one knows how many lives have been saved by penicillin but it is estimated to be between 80,000,000 and 200,000,000, and it’s still saving millions of people around the world today. Discovering penicillin led to the development of many more antibiotics that are used today to treat all sorts of bacterial diseases.

But over time as some bacteria have mutated and become resistant to these antibiotics, there are questions around how effective this medicine is, for future generations. Do we have the ability to keep designing new drugs to fend off the continually morphing bacteria? Today we’ll take a look, in this episode of The Infographics Show: What Big Thing is on the Verge of Happening?

Microbes, which is short for microscopic organisms, are not big; they are very very small…so small in fact, that they cannot be seen with the naked eye. They are found everywhere on Earth, and they come in a number of variations: viruses, bacteria, parasites, and fungi, and they’ve been around a long time. Bacteria were some of the first organisms to emerge, with fossil evidence dating back about 3.5 billion years. While many microbes are either harmless or even beneficial to living organisms, some can cause disease among humans, animals, and plant life.  

They are known as pathogens, but you are more likely to have heard them referred to with the household name, germs or bugs. Microbes multiply in the body and produce harmful substances called toxins, which damage tissues and organs. Let’s take a look at some of the common diseases caused by microbes. Fungi can cause rashes such as athlete’s foot, thrush, and ringworm. From bacteria, we can pick up tuberculosis which affects the lungs; salmonella, which is a type of food poisoning; and whooping cough, which also affects the lungs. Common viruses are chicken pox, the common cold, and influenza or the flu.

And finally parasites which include tapeworms in the gut, giardia, an infection which causes diarrhea, and malaria, a killer fever which mosquitos spread. Since discovering penicillin, a naturally occurring antibiotic, we have developed many more of these drugs, to help destroy or slow down the growth of microbes. Antibiotics fight these infections either by killing bacteria or making it difficult for the bacteria to grow and multiply.

So this is a lot of interesting information on small things, but what big thing is about to happen? These microbes are living creatures, and though our technology is highly effective and has enabled us to create many different antibiotics to fend off bacteria, these little microbes have their own defense mechanisms and can resist the effect of a drug, once they’ve been exposed to it. It’s a term referred to as antibiotic resistance and it’s the talk of the town. Simply put, antibiotic or antimicrobial resistance is the ability for microbes to resist the effects of drugs and therefore germs are not killed, their growth is not stopped, and infections with resistant organisms become very difficult to treat. So how big and bad is this situation?

Antibiotic resistance has been found in many different bacteria, some of which are the cause of common problems like pneumonia, sexually transmitted diseases, or even food poisoning. Germs can mutate and change to become resistant to a particular antibiotic, or adopt resistance-granting genes from other species of microbe. In some cases, doctors will prescribe more powerful drugs to try and counter the resistance but this opens up the risk to additional problems such as kidney damage.

Popular Science reported in 2017, that at least 2 million people come down with antibiotic resistant infections in America each year, and as many as 23,000 of these people die. This adds around $20 billion to healthcare costs in the United States each year, and is prolonging people’s recovery from illnesses. “Resistance limits the number of options we have to treat infections, which can mean that someone may take longer or require more expensive interventions to treat,” said Keeve Nachman, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.

A microbe that is resistant to commonly used antibiotics is called a superbug. But not all superbugs are created equal. Some are resistant to one or two, whereas others can be resistant to multiple drugs. Their level of resistance determines where they sit on the superbug scale. But what about the ultimate superbug that has a resistance to every drug we have developed? We looked at some statistics on the website of the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention or the CDC, to see how bad this situation really is.

The CDC states that the full impact is not known, as there is no system in place to track antibiotic resistance globally and that there is a need for urgent action. Some statistics by region which the CDC have collated include: In the European Union, antibiotic resistance causes 25,000 deaths per year and 2.5 million extra hospital days. In India, 58,000 babies died in one year as a result of infection with resistant bacteria passed on from their mothers. In Thailand, antibiotic resistance causes more than 38,000 deaths per year and 3.2m hospital days. The main causes for antibiotic resistance are: 1. Over prescription of antibiotics. 2. Patients not taking the drugs prescribed. 3. Unnecessary antibiotics used in agriculture. 4. Poor infection control in hospitals. 5. Poor hygiene and sanitation practices. And 6. Lack of laboratory tests…

So can we slow and eventually stop this growing resistance issue? According to the CDC, we need to implement a number of counter measures to even have a hope. We need to improve labs so they can better understand bacteria and develop new and improved drugs. We need to collect and share data between countries so better policy decisions can be made and we also need to use antibiotics wisely by taking what the doctor prescribes. And finally, we need to take measures to prevent infections and improve healthcare controls and settings.

But some of you might be wondering, what about the superbug of all superbugs? Maybe they are already among us. Last year, the BBC ran a report about a superbug that could not be treated with 26 different antibiotics, leaving a US woman dead. The 70-year-old from Nevada had returned from a trip to India, with an infected swelling in her right hip. A CDC report said the infection was “resistant to all available antimicrobial drugs”.

The women had repeatedly needed hospital treatment after breaking her right leg. She got an infection within her bone, which then spread to her hip. When she was admitted to the hospital on her return to the US, her immune system was in overdrive, trying to fight the infection that was causing inflammation throughout her body. This escalated, and ultimately she died from septic shock, which is organ injury and damage as a result of infection. The CDC determined that she was infected with klebsiella pneumonia, a bacterium that normally lives in the gut without causing disease. But this superbug was resistant to all 26 available antibiotics in the US!

In 2014, the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, set up a review to look into just how bad the issue with antibiotic resistance and the emergence of superbugs is. According to projections calculated by a team led by Jim O’Neill, the City economist, the number of superbug deaths globally could skyrocket to as many as 10 million people a year. O’Neil stated that the threat to the human race from deadly new disease strains resistant to drugs is “more certain” than that from climate change. He laid out a Doomsday scenario, warning that 300 million people could die in the next 35 years from currently treatable conditions, unless there is a global effort to find new treatments and reduce overprescribing.

So, are these superbugs the next big thing that’s on the verge of happening? The threat that could overshadow the environmental disaster we might be facing? We may never know for sure, but if a global reaching superbug does materialize, then the world could start to look more like a Hollywood apocalypse movie than the world we see today. Do you think these superbugs pose a genuine threat to our existence? Let us know in the comments! Also, be sure to check out our other video called Could the Black Death Happen Again?! Thanks for watching, and, as always, don’t forget to like, share, and subscribe. See you next time!

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