Dr. Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928, after observing horrific lethal infections on the battlefields of the first World War. It was the first antibiotic to defeat a wide range of terrifying diseases. Today, however, there are frequently shortages of this critical medication. In addition, penicillin and related antibiotics may not kill emerging superbugs.
Less than a century after the discovery of penicillin, many bacteria have evolved into superbugs. As a consequence, antibiotics are no longer effective in killing them. Some microbes have developed resistance to multiple drugs and can no longer be treated with medications. This year alone, drug-resistant infections will probably kill 700,000 people. By 2050, the UN estimates that as many as 10 million people will die annually from infections caused by drug-resistant microbes.
Initially, pharmaceutical manufacturers were enthusiastic about developing new antimicrobial products. But over the last several decades, they have become much less interested in doing R&D on products that are taken only for a short term, as successful antibiotics are. Many companies would rather focus on medications that must be taken every day for years, because they get a better return on their investment. Has this contributed to the rise of the superbugs?
Superbugs began to evolve by the mid-1960s. Now, pathogens like methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA have become common. Doctors are working on developing a new antimicrobial drug called dalbavansin that should treat emerging superbugs successfully for a least a while.
Matt McCarthy, MD, is an assistant professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medical School and a staff physician at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. Dr. McCarthy is editor-in-chief of Current Fungal Infection Reports and author of two best-selling books: Odd Man Out and The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly. His latest is Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic, to be published May 21. You can learn more at http://www.drmattmccarthy.com/books/superbugs-hc
His website is http://drmattmccarthy.com/
The photograph of Dr. McCarthy was taken by Nina Subin.