Drug resistant ‘superbugs’ on the increase

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New strains of multi-resistant bacteria, or superbugs, have seen a steady increase across the globe since 2003 and a major outbreak could be next, medical experts say.

Australia has experienced several cases of antibiotic-resistant strains of harmful bacteria including C.difficile and E.coli in the past twelve months. Speaking in an online press briefing today, experts from the nation’s leading universities said one of the main causes of increased resistance is the misuse and over-prescription of antibiotics by doctors.

“Antibiotics are truly a miracle drug. The problem is we’re squandering them,” said Peter Collignon, Director of Infectious Diseases and Microbiology at the Australian National University.

Superbugs are of even more concern in developing countries such as India, where overexposure to antibiotics is enhanced by poor hygiene and lack of governmental regulation, but they could easily enter Australia through travellers to those countries or via imported foods.

“Lots of superbugs are on the foods we eat, particularly foods that are imported from overseas,” Professor Collignon said.

While many healthy people are able to carry the superbugs without getting an infection, those who do become ill could be very difficult for practitioners to treat. Most at risk include hospital patients and the elderly, said Tom Riley from the School of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the University of Western Australia.

“These organisms can spread very quickly, and often the people who get them are ones that have been in hospital a while. They are vulnerable,” Professor Collignon added.

New drug treatments that are effective against these new strains could still be many years away. “To produce a new antibiotic costs millions and millions, so it is in the hands of large pharmaceutical companies,” said Tom Gottleib, President of the Australasian Society for Infectious Diseases.

Three recorded cases of the superbug NDM-1 have been recorded in Australia in the last twelve months, while an outbreak of a hypervirulent strain of C.difficile in a Melbourne private hospital was reported last month. Medical professionals have observed a new antibiotic-resistant strain of E.coli in travellers returning from India and Pakistan.

“There are very likely to be more,” Professor Collignon said.

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