Bugs – or microbes – are everywhere. Invisible to the naked eye, they live inside us, on us, and around us. Many are harmless. Some even help us. Others cause infection that can make us sick. Fortunately, many of these infections can be treated. However, some bugs cause infections that are difficult – and sometimes impossible – to treat. These are called superbugs.
Antibiotics save millions of lives around the world. These days we take them for granted to treat infections that, in the past, used to kill us. They also make other medical procedures possible, from operations to cancer treatment to removing a tooth.
However, an increasing number of antibiotics, antifungal and antiviral medicines we rely on are starting to fail. Millions of people are getting sick and dying needlessly. Simple operations are becoming too dangerous to perform.
If we don’t act now, we risk going back to a world where something as simple as a scratch or a splinter could get infected and risk killing us or our loved ones.
But there is hope…
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Microbes (or simply ‘bugs’) are tiny, simple life forms, generally invisible to the naked eye. There are lots of different types, but the four that cause infections are:
Antibiotics are used to treat infections caused by bacteria. Their discovery in the twentieth century transformed medicine. Whereas people used to regularly die from what today we might consider minor infections, such as a sore throat, ear ache, or even a paper cut, thanks to antibiotics we can now perform complex surgery or cancer treatment with far less risk of infection.
However, the overuse of antibiotics has sped up the process of bacteria becoming ‘resistant’ to antibiotics, meaning the drugs no longer work. Because it is the bugs, and not people, who become resistant, the more resistant bacteria there are in the world, the more dangerous it is for everyone.
This is a tricky question. While bugs are a natural phenomenon, the conditions that allow them to become such a threat to humans are often made possible – or worse – by our activity.
From antibiotic pollution in our water and air, to poor animal welfare that allows viruses to make the jump from animals to humans, to mass poverty which creates the perfect breeding ground for superbugs to flourish, the root causes of superbugs are social, economic and political.
That’s why we believe that to stop superbugs, it’s not simply a case of stopping the bugs themselves. We need to re-examine and re-imagine our relationship with each other, animals and the natural world if we want to make a lasting difference and save millions of lives.
Antibiotics are one of our most powerful drugs. However, because of their rampant overuse, they have made their way into our water, our soil, our food, and even our air.
Part of the problem is that our bodies excrete antibiotics when we take them, so they enter the sewers where they intermingle with each other, creating more superbugs. However, industrial waste is another major source of pollution, with rivers near antibiotic factories frequently found to be full of drug-resistant bacteria. Finally, many factory farmed animals and fish are also routinely given antibiotics to help them survive their poor living conditions and, in some countries, to make them grow bigger. Just like us, the animals excrete the antibiotics, which also adds to the amount in the environment.
According to the WHO, ‘One Health’ is an approach to designing and implementing programmes, policies, legislation and research in which multiple sectors communicate and work together to achieve better public health outcomes.
In relation to superbugs, this means not simply looking at one cause, but addressing all of the underlying factors, such as pollution, climate change, food security, animal welfare, clean water and sanitation, poverty and more…