Every year, drug-resistant bacteria and fungi known as “superbugs” infect 2 million Americans — and kill up to 162,000 of those patients.
Sadly, that toll could soon skyrocket. Microorganisms like bacteria and fungi build resistance to medical treatments over time. Each time someone uses an antimicrobial — think prescription antibiotics or antibacterial soaps — those microorganisms have a chance to evolve into a drug-resistant superbug.
Superbugs are evolving faster than we’re creating new treatments. It’s up to everyday Americans to prevent this looming public health crisis.
Here are four easy steps to fight the spread of these deadly infections.
1. Avoid antibacterial products.
Soap and body wash that contain “antibacterial” ingredients sound healthy. But they aren’t.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) determined that antibacterial soaps are no better at preventing illness than regular soap and water. These added ingredients just turn people’s bodies into breeding grounds for antimicrobial-resistant bacteria.
Antibacterial cleaning products, meanwhile, leave behind chemicals designed to wipe out bacteria. However, these chemicals aren’t 100 percent effective. The surviving bacteria may evolve to become resistant to antimicrobials — posing a threat to humans’ safety.
2. Take antibiotics appropriately.
When prescribed antibiotics, patients should always complete the full course of treatment, even if they feel better halfway through. Stopping treatment early allows some bacteria to live on and evolve.
Patients should also only take antibiotics when absolutely necessary. Many often clamor for antibiotics as soon as they catch colds, even though most colds — along with the flu, bronchitis, and the stomach flu — are caused by viruses, which antibiotics can’t treat. Thirty percent of antibiotics prescribed in the United States are unnecessary, according to a study in the Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy. Only one in 10 sore-throat patients actually needs antibiotics, but six in 10 receive them.
By overusing antibiotics or not taking them as directed, Americans inadvertently accelerate the spread of superbugs. Patients can exercise caution and only use antibiotics as a last resort. For instance, folks should confirm they actually have strep throat before taking amoxicillin. Otherwise, they may increase their risk of resistant infections down the line.
3. Get vaccinated.
It’s crucial that people stay up-to-date on their shots. A single vaccine prevents the same infections as a whole regimen of antibiotics.
Consider the bacteria responsible for many ear and sinus infections, Streptococcus pneumoniae. If every child in the world was vaccinated for that bacteria, the World Health Organization estimates it would prevent 11 million days of antibiotic use every year.
4. Tell Congress to support the DISARM Act.
In June, Senators Johnny Isakson (R-GA) and Bob Casey (D-PA) introduced the Developing an Innovative Strategy for Antimicrobial Resistance, or DISARM, Act. The bipartisan bill would incentivize doctors and hospitals to use newer antibiotics, instead of older less effective ones. The proposal would also require hospitals to start stewardship programs to monitor how and when they administer antibiotics. Such programs have proven effective at reducing the amount of unnecessary prescriptions that doctors write.
The DISARM Act is an essential first step in preventing the misuse of antibiotics. Americans can call or write their senators to advocate for the bill.
By taking small steps to prevent antibiotic resistance, everyone can help save millions of lives from the scourge of superbugs.
Greg Frank, Ph.D., is the director of infectious disease policy at the Biotechnology Innovation Organization.