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What are superbugs and how can they affect your care?

Superbugs. You may have heard the word making the rounds, but if it brings up images in your head of cute little insect superheroes fighting crime, it’s time to adjust your thinking. In fact, superbugs are antibiotic-resistant bacteria that are quickly becoming one of the biggest health challenges of our time.

Antibiotics first came into broad use in the 1940s and 50s, and meant that previously untreatable conditions like pneumonia, meningitis and strep were now curable. This solved a problem, but also laid the foundation for a new one.

For a long time after that, doctors the world over took to prescribing antibiotics more and more often for common ailments including respiratory and sinus infections, often without any confirmation whether the infection was in fact bacterial. Viral infections cannot be helped by antibiotics, but many doctors prescribed them “just in case”. Use of antibiotics also became common in livestock, not only to keep animals healthy, but also to increase their weight.

Over the years, this overuse of antibiotics has meant that they are now everywhere. In our bodies, in the food we eat and the water we drink. And the bacteria they are meant to kill have essentially grown used to them. That is what we mean by antibiotic-resistant. To stay with the superhero analogy, it’s like Superman developing a tolerance for Kryptonite. Although “superbug” can be used to describe any antibiotic-resistant bacteria, more specifically it refers to bugs that are resistant to multiple different antibiotics. These superbugs are hard to kill, and that’s a big problem.

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Sadly, superbugs present the biggest threat to people who are already sick. Transplant patients, people recovering from injury, those undergoing chemotherapy. They are most at risk for bacterial infections, and twenty years ago, their doctors could rest assured that if infections happened, they had the answer. Now, they may not be quite so sure.

In terms of how superbugs affect you if you suffer from a medical condition like diabetes or high blood pressure, they are yet another risk that you have to take into account whenever you are having a procedure, spending time in hospital etc. If you have a more serious condition like cancer, the risk of infection is that much greater. And nowadays, thanks to superbugs, risk of infection may mean risk of infection that can’t be controlled. It certainly ups the ante for even the most common medical condition.

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The best way to protect yourself is to reduce your own exposure to antibiotics. If you can afford it, buy antibiotic-free meat. If you are sick, don’t ask your doctor to prescribe antibiotics unless it is clear that you have a bacterial infection. The more antibiotics you take, the greater your risk. Your Express Scripts Pharmacist can help you review your medical history and determine whether you may be taking more antibiotics than you need.

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Antibiotic-resistant bacteria existed before antibiotics were even discovered, but there is little doubt that the proliferation of antibiotics is making the problem worse. The most recent estimate from the U.S. is that at least 23,000 people die each year from antibiotic-resistant infections. Some say the numbers could be much higher than that.

Steps are being taken to slow the spread of superbugs. All over the world, health authorities are encouraging doctors to prescribe antibiotics much more carefully. The routine and still-growing use of antibiotics in livestock may be a much larger problem in terms of the total volume of antibiotics present in the environment, but awareness is growing in this area as well.

There is also a great deal of new and ongoing research in this area. There is momentum building for renewed R&D into new antibiotic drugs after years of very little movement in this area. In addition to new antibiotics, significant research is being carried out in terms of combining antibiotics with other drugs to boost their effectiveness. Given the gravity of the threat, experts are re-examining everything we think we know about these tiny super-villains.

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