Superbugs and you: What the World Health Organisation's warning means

  • 07/03/2017

With levels of antibiotic resistance on the rise in many OECD countries, including New Zealand, stark warnings have sounded about the urgent need for new drugs.

The looming threat of an increase in deadly superbugs has the World Health Organisation (WHO) worried, but how could they affect you?

The organisation recently released a list of a dozen antibiotic-resistant superbugs for which new drugs urgently need to be developed to combat.

In recent decades, drug-resistant bacteria, such as Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) or Clostridium difficile, have become a global health threat, while superbug strains of infections such as tuberculosis and gonorrhoea are now untreatable.

Auckland University microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles heads the Bioluminescent Superbugs Lab.

She says everyone is at risk of contracting a superbug, though the young and old are particularly vulnerable.

"They're everywhere - but they're also in us. We could have a superbug in our nose or in our guts and they're not causing any problems but if we get sick, or we end up in hospital or we pass it to somebody in hospital, that's when they cause the major problems."

Those problems could mean a vulnerable patient, such as those on ventilators or needing surgery, could get an infection which is untreatable.

If nothing is done, it could lead to the patient's death.

She says part of the problem is "evolution in action", with bacteria fighting against antibiotics and eventually becoming resistant to them.

"It's partly our overuse. Antibiotics have been overused or not used well in humans but also animals in agriculture. It's also the way they're manufactured and perhaps waste from making antibiotics is dumped into our soils and waterways."

Bacteria living in those environments can become resistant and survive over bacteria which aren't immune.

It's a problem that needs to be tackled urgently for a problem that exists now, Dr Wiles says.

"It takes five to 10 years to develop a new medicine, and if we aren't doing these things now when they're already and issue, what is it going to be like in 10 years' time when they're everywhere and we have nothing left? All the last resorts have gone - then what kind of world are we facing?

"It's pretty terrifying."

The WHO has previously warned that many antibiotics could become totally redundant this century, leaving patients exposed to deadly infections and threatening the future of medicine.