Story of a Superbug: How Antibiotic Overuse Created a Monster

Antibiotic Awareness Week: Where did superbugs come from? Hear it from the super bacteria himself

Health News
5 min read
The rise in multidrug-resistant bacteria is usually attributed to the overuse of antibiotics in human medicine, farming and now, globalised drug manufacturing.

(18-25 November is observed annually as Anitbiotic Awareness Week. FIT is republishing this story in this light.)

We are nearing the post-antibiotic era, which basically means our body will no longer be able to fight bacterial infections, because we’ll develop resistance to all antibiotics known to man.

What’s worse? Multidrug-resistant bacteria that’s spreading through our hospitals.

How did we get here?

Let’s hear it directly from a little bacteria called Staph!

The film has been put together by Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy in the run up to Antibiotic Awareness Week.

The Birth Of Antibiotics

The story of bacteria goes back to billions and billions of years ago. It survived everything – from prehistoric times to ice age to the dinosaurs. Humans, who came into existence a mere 2,00,000 years ago, hardly had a chance against the bacteria.

For 1,000s of years, a simple cut or a prick on the finger could kill you. A simple flu could wipe out an entire population because there was no treatment for it. The bacteria continued to strengthen its reign.

Alexander Fleming’s discovery of Penicillin changed the course of history. 
Alexander Fleming’s discovery of Penicillin changed the course of history. 
(Photo: Wikimedia Common)

But that’s until the discovery of Penicillin by a Scottish scientist called Alexander Fleming in 1928. It was the world’s first family of antibiotics that finally went into use in 1942. Penicillin helped put to an end the misery caused by bacterial infections. But then, scientists always knew Penicillin came with an expiry date. Resistance was inevitable.

Human folly took over and antibiotics were rampantly being prescribed and popped for ailments that had nothing to do with bacterial infections.

According to a report by the Public Health Foundation of India, three out of five doctors in the metros dole out antibiotics like candy because it’s a quick fix, or because patients “insist” on it.

The scientific community also failed to produce any new family of antibiotics. No new class has been discovered since the 1980s. And that brings us to our current scenario.

Post-Antibiotic World

Not only were antibiotics being consumed by humans, but also being rampantly used for farming of animals. In order to increase the immunity of animals against disease, they were being pumped into their system. What this led to was the presence of multidrug-resistant bacteria in the environment.

A study, conducted by the Centre for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy (CDDEP) across 18 poultry farms in six districts of Punjab, detected high prevalence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in two-thirds of the farms surveyed.
The study revealed that two-thirds of the poultry farms surveyed in Punjab were using antibiotics for growth promotion.
The study revealed that two-thirds of the poultry farms surveyed in Punjab were using antibiotics for growth promotion.
(Photo: CDDEP)

Hospitals, safe havens for those fighting disease, gave birth to what’s known as superbugs – multidrug-resistant bacteria that reduces the effectiveness of drugs, chemicals, or other agents designed to cure or prevent infections.

The World Health Organisation has warned that “many common infections will no longer have a cure and, once again, could kill unabated”. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has pointed to the emergence of “nightmare bacteria”.

Unless things change drastically, the number of deaths from antibiotic resistance is predicted to rise to 10 million by 2050, that’s many times more than the fatalities due to cancer. (Source: World Health Organisation)

Already, there are sexually transmitted diseases like gonorrhoea, which are becoming increasingly difficult to treat.

Multidrug-resistant and extremely-drug resistant tuberculosis – meaning only a couple of drugs still work – is a growing problem.


This superbug brought international infamy to India with it’s name – New Delhi Metallo-beta-lactamase-1 (NDM-1).

It is believed to have emerged in hospitals in the capital city, and is an emerging threat in South Asia.

Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae or CRE, Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus MRSA and Vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus or VRE are some complicated names of superbugs that have taken over hospitals.

As scientists world over work overtime to come up with a new family of antibiotics, there has been some headway.

BBC recently reported that US scientists have re-engineered a vital antibiotic in a bid to wipe out one of the world's most threatening superbugs. This new version of vancomycin is designed to be ultra-tough and appears to be a thousand times more potent than the old drug.

It fights bacteria in three different ways, making it much less likely that the bugs can dodge the attack.

It will target vancomycin-resistant enterococci or VRE, a bacteria believed to be the greatest threat to human health by the WHO. Found in hospitals, it can cause dangerous wound and bloodstream infections.

It’s an important development, but the drug is not ready for human use for another five years.

Where Do We Go Now?

India’s $17 billion drugs industry is one of the world’s biggest suppliers of antibiotics.
India’s $17 billion drugs industry is one of the world’s biggest suppliers of antibiotics.
(Photo: iStock)

As scientists scramble to find solutions, various studies have taken on the brief that we must always complete our course of antibiotics.

For years, inability to complete the full course of antibiotics was seen as a major cause of antibiotic resistance.

Then came a new analysis that appears in British Medical Journal, the advice was to stop taking antibiotics when you ‘feel’ better. Another study suggests that shorter courses of antibiotics may be just as effective as longer courses. The belief is that the longer such bacteria is exposed to antibiotics, the more likely it is that it will develop resistance against it. 

We spoke with several specialists when this report came out, and the advice was to go with what your doctor suggests. He’s studied the bug that you have, the doctor has clinical evidence of what is required and their prescription is the best bet.

The WHO recently pleaded for far more funding and research in developing a new class of antibiotics.

Besides TB, the WHO has also identified 12 classes of priority pathogens – including common infections like pneumonia or urinary tract infections – that are increasingly resistant to existing antibiotics and urgently in need of new treatments.

Among 51 new antibiotics in development, only eight are classified by WHO as innovative treatments.

The world is fast running out.

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