Germs have been around since time immemorial, but Superbugs have recently come up on the medical radar. Behnaz Sanjana finds out more about the urgency to develop new antibiotics and why you should think twice before you pop that antibiotic pill.
Germs. They’re everywhere – in your home, at the gym, in your car, and yes, even in your purse. But what are these invisible microbes that wreak havoc with our wellness and our everyday life when they decide to make our body their home?
Dr Rama Krishna, surgeon at the American Mission Hospital Manama and chairperson of the hospital’s Infection Control Committee, spells it out for us. “In simple layman terms, all bad bacteria can be labelled as germs.”
Dr Krishna emphasises on simple measures like hand hygiene, personal hygiene and minimising contact with infected patients to steer clear of germs. “On the personal front, appropriate vaccinations, a healthy diet and lifestyle keep germs at bay. From the community perspective good sanitation, availability of potable water and a clean environment are important,” he says.
You may run in the opposite direction when someone around you sneezes and reach for the hand sanitiser several times a day, but bad bacteria can thrive in the least expected things that you use in the course of your day.
And no, we are not talking of the toilets or kitchen sponges, which are obvious addresses for invisible bugs. Think of your favourite handbag, your makeup, your cell phone and the steering wheel and floor mats of your car. They are breeding grounds for germs and could do with some regular disinfecting. Avoid resting your purse on floors of public places like toilets and restaurants. Disinfect makeup with an alcohol solution and discard products after their expiry date. A quick wipe of the steering with antibacterial wipes and frequent washing of the floor mats should keep the germ quotient in your car to the minimum.
Where there are germs, there are antibiotics. “Antibiotics are chemical substances that kill or inhibit the growth of bacteria,” says Dr Krishna. This makes them an important part of a doctor’s medical arsenal. However, he goes on to say that they are not always necessary and will only be of any use in infectious diseases – that is, diseases caused by harmful bacteria. They will not act against illnesses caused by a virus – the most common example of which is the common cold, sore throat or the flu.
Like all other medicines, an overdose of antibiotics has harmful effects. “Since these are chemical compounds, they will cause changes in the body – gastrointestinal problems, allergic reactions, and prolonged use may cause liver or kidney problems,” warns our expert.
But besides the odd upset stomach, the repeated, indiscreet use of antibiotics has other serious repercussions. “They also kill the good bacteria in the body as they cannot distinguish between good and bad bacteria. Injudicious use of antibiotics causes the bad bacteria to become more powerful and dangerous and hence, difficult to treat with antibiotics.”
In other words, bacteria become ‘resistant to antibiotics’. They can survive the affects of an antibiotic, refusing to leave the human body. This has earned them the moniker ‘Superbugs’, which is really as scary as it sounds.
The World Health Organisation and knowledgeable healthcare workers are trying to educate medical professionals and the general public that the more we use antibiotics, the greater the chance that bacteria will become resistant to them so that they no longer work on our infections.
Superbugs don’t just affect you; they can spread to other living beings in close contact with you and are very difficult to treat.
As the primary initiator and chairman of the Antibiotics Stewardship Programme, Dr Krishna notes that some doctors do not think twice before prescribing antibiotics for cases where they may not be needed in the first place. “Also, patients, especially parents of sick children, pressurise doctors to unnecessarily prescribe antibiotics,” he says. “Obviously they want the child to get better in the shortest possible time.”
But unfortunately, antibiotics are not the wonder drug laymen think them to be.
Bacteria are smarter than humans and can learn how to break down chemical compounds in antibiotics. Dr Krishna exhorts people and medical practitioners to be more judicious in their use. “Not many new types of antibiotics have been developed in the past decades, so we have to make do with whatever we have available. If bacteria become resistant to the antibiotics that we currently use, it is going to pose a very grave situation worldwide,”
He even cites about several cases, wherein patients’ lives have been lost due to doctors being unable to effectively treat their antibiotic-resistant infections.
By using antibiotics less often we can slow down the development of resistance to them, which buys time for pharmaceutical companies to develop new antibiotics. Consider alternative remedies that can help your sickness. In case an antibiotic is absolutely essential, make sure you take them exactly as prescribed and for the entire duration they are prescribed for. In the fight against Superbugs, a little prudence goes a long way.