Superbugs! Yes we have all heard of them through the newspaper, on TV, or on Internet, but do you REALLY know what they are? What microorganisms make up the “superbug” category? Do we understand how and why they are “superbugs”? Who is at risk, and how can we protect ourselves and loved ones from these kinds of infections? There are many questions out there, and some are harder to answer than others.
A superbug is a pathogenic microorganism. Specifically, a superbug is a bacterium that has developed resistance to the medications normally used against it. This means that it is now much more difficult to treat superbug infections, as the antibiotics they used to be susceptible to are no longer effective because the organisms have mutated to become resistant for survival. Antibiotic resistance is a serious threat to public health. Although there are several superbugs, a few of the most common superbugs are methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), vancomycin resistant E. coli (VRE) and Clostridium difficile (C.diff). According to the CDC, each year, around 2 million people in the United States become infected with some kind of bacteria that is resistant to antibiotics, and around 23,000 die as a direct result of the infection.
Staphylococcus aureus, for example, is a bacterium that is common on skin and in the nares. It rarely causes harm unless we become severely immunosuppressed, injured, or need surgery. Although these infections are not very common, they are possible. These are what medical professionals call “opportunistic pathogens.” One becomes ill, and the bacteria take that opportunity to replicate and take over our bodies faster than our weakened immune systems can rid of them.
Everyone at some point in their life will need medical care of some degree. Those who are most at risk of developing a MRSA infection are hospitalized patients, and elderly patients are at a particularly high risk. The increased risk is because hospitalized patients often have IVs, ventilators, catheters, and surgical wounds, which allow easy access for the microorganism to infect lungs, bladder, blood, and skin. Most patients are already immunosuppressed and admitted for some kind of other underlying medical condition. If a patient were to become infected while in hospital because of one of the reasons above, this would be called a nosocomial infection, also known as a hospital-acquired infection.
Prevention is key! It IS possible to reduce superbug prevalence and reduce the risk of infection. First and foremost, wash your hands! Poor hand hygiene is the number one cause of transmitting infections, but it is also the easiest way to prevent the transmission from even occurring. Another prevention practice is to cover any wounds. Direct contact from an infected wound is easily transmissible and contagious. We also need to address the overprescribing of antibiotics.
Please take the time to educate yourself about superbugs and how to protect you and your family from infections. Ignorance is not bliss when it comes to your health and the public’s health. It is our responsibility as health providers and health communicators to increase understanding of superbugs and help protect ourselves and our patients from this danger.
Desirae Cammack works as a certified Medical Laboratory Scientist with more than 5 years of laboratory health care experience and several more years with general patient care experience, including phlebotomy and nursing home care, since her high school years. Desirae double majored and received her bachelor’s in medical technology and biology from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh in 2009 along with minors in both chemistry and microbiology. After passing her board exam, Desirae became certified through the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP). She has extensive experience in many departments of the laboratory such as chemistry, blood bank, hematology, microbiology, and coagulation. Her next career goal is to pursue a master’s in public health. Desirae will be embarking in new career opportunities within the medical laboratory science field this spring when she relocates to Omaha, NE.