What You Need to Know About 'Superbugs' Right Now

February 28th 2017

The World Health Organization on Monday released a list of antibiotic "superbugs," and stressed that the problem will get much worse if drug companies and policy makers don't do something soon.

According to the WHO, the 12 types of superbug bacteria that are resistant to multiple antibiotics and have the potential to "pass along genetic material" that will help other kinds of bacteria become resistant as well. The list categorizes the bacteria according to the most urgent need for new antibiotics to fight the disease.

The WHO created the list to encourage policy makers around the world to address this growing problem, and provides incentives for public and private research for new antibiotics, something that is lacking across the globe, including the United States.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated in 2013 that a minimum of 23,000 Americans die from antibiotic resistant infections every year.

"This list is a new tool to ensure R&D responds to urgent public health needs," Dr. Marie-Paule Kieny, WHO's Assistant Director-General for Health Systems and Innovation, said in a press release. "Antibiotic resistance is growing, and we are fast running out of treatment options. If we leave it to market forces alone, the new antibiotics we most urgently need are not going to be developed in time."

Why are bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics?

ATTN: talked to Dr. Brad Spellberg, a professor of clinical medicine at the University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine and a top researcher and author on antibiotic resistance, about this growing threat.

Antibiotics in foods are a big part of the problem.

Spellberg said that about 80 percent of the antibiotics used in the U.S. go to livestock, which research suggests is linked to resistant bacteria in humans. Starting in 2018, California will have the strictest standards in the U.S. for antibiotic use in livestock, according to The Guardian. Advocates have called for Congress to limit the mass use of antibiotics in agriculture, but considering the economic interests involved, Spellberg is doubtful a congressional solution will be possible.

However, he thinks the American public is changing the landscape through consumer demand.

"Increasingly, the public is demanding antibiotic free meat," he said. "Customers are going to require it and I think that's the solution here in the United States."

In 2015, Tyson Foods, the biggest chicken producer in the country agreed to stop giving chickens antibiotics that humans are also prescribed, and McDonalds and Subway will no longer use chicken that's been given antibiotics that are also used by humans.

The issue is compounded by the fact that sick Americans are overusing antibiotics, even when the prescriptions can't help them.

"People need to understand that antibiotics don't work on viruses and if you demand an antibiotic when you have a viral infection you have no chance of benefiting from that," said Spellberg.

At the same time, drug companies have little motivation to make new antibiotics, since developing new medications for chronic conditions like diabetes, high cholesterol, or dementia are more profitable. He said the federal government should work to encourage development of new drugs while also guarding against overuse.

"The for-profit model is failing antibiotics, and frankly it should fail. Antibiotics are a public trust," he said. "When you use them, it makes them less effective for me, and when I use them it's less effective for your grandchildren. We should be preserving them not encouraging their sale."

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