Squashing the Superbug: Understanding the Spread of Drug-Resistant Bacteria and How to Stop it

We’ve all seen and heard headlines touting the great fears of “superbugs,” a word that calls to mind some sort of sci-fi horror film villain. However, while it’s easy to write off the media’s focus on superbugs as an attention-grabber and fear tactic to rile audiences, superbugs can cause real dangers, especially in hospitals, if not contained. This post functions as an introduction to the superbug phenomenon as well as the forces that cause them to spread. Additionally, we pose some of the most important steps that can be taken to lessen their affects on the greater population.


What exactly is a superbug?

The term “superbug” is used to refer to strains of bacteria that have become resistant to most antibiotics. As antibiotics become more commonplace in modern medicine, many strains of bacteria adapt to the drugs intended to kill them, leaving doctors and scientists scrambling for new treatment options.[1]

Earlier this year, the World Health Organization released a list of some of the most threatening bacteria classified as superbugs. The three that have been labeled “critical” concerns include acinetobacter baumannii and pseudomonas aeruginosa, which are highly drug resistant bacteria that can cause a range of infections, including pneumonia, blood infections, and wound infections.[2] Additionally at the top of the list are enterobacteriaceae, which live in the human gut and include E. coli and Salmonella, and tuberculosis.[3]


How do they spread?

Bacteria spread like all germs, but can live for a long time on clothing, door handles, and other inanimate objects, so the more people who come into contact with what an infected person has touched, the greater chance there is for mass exposure.[4] This is of particularly high concern in a hospital or clinical setting, where a superbug is likely to originate. While the goal is of course to contain the spread of disease, one of the great problems hospitals and nursing homes are currently facing is the spread of superbugs between facilities, typically due to a lack of communication.[5] When a patient is discharged to another location, researchers have found that handoffs are typically made without noting a drug-resistant bacterial infection on a patient’s chart.[6] A lack of regular or complete communication can result in opportunities missed to ensure appropriate contact precautions are taken.[7]


How can we prevent superbugs from spreading?

If we’re to stop drug-resistant bacteria from being transmitted through and to different communities, proper and thorough communication between healthcare staff members is key. During a patient transfer, the receiving facility should be alerted so as to properly care for the patient and ensure others aren’t affected. A recent Oregon law requiring written communication between discharging and receiving a patient with a drug-resistant organism is an example of how transfer of superbugs between facilities can be prevented.[8] However, Oregon is the outlier; most public health jurisdictions do not require drug-resistant infections to be reported.[9] Legislation initiatives at both the state and national level could be critical ways to stop superbugs in their tracks.

Additionally, raising awareness and educating both patients and physicians on the dangers of overprescribing antibiotics and inappropriate use is critical to preventing the development of further superbugs. If drug-resistance can be nipped in the bud, concerns about the spread of superbugs will be significantly lessened.


Tim Jinks, head of drug-resistant infections for the medical charity Wellcome Trust says, “Within a generation, without new antibiotics, deaths from drug-resistant infection could reach 10 million a year.[10] Not only do healthcare workers need to be held accountable for overprescribing, they need to be very aware of the importance of communicating so as not to create opportunities for superbug spreading. Washing hands and general cleanliness can impede germs, but only effective communication can create the opportunity to truly contain them.

[1] Branswell, Helen, “WHO releases list of world’s most dangerous superbugs,” Statnews.com, Feb. 27, 2017, https://www.statnews.com/2017/02/27/who-list-bacteria-antibiotic-resistance/

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Foden-Vencil, Kristian, “Study: Poor Communication Can Aid Spread of ‘Superbugs,’” OPB.org, Sept. 21, 2017, http://www.opb.org/news/article/superbug-research-spread-communication-hospital-nursing-home/

[5] Ibid

[6] Nelson, Deborah J., David Rohde, Benjamin Lesser, and Ryan McNeil, “How hospitals, nursing homes keep lethal ‘superbug’ outbreaks secret,” Reuters.com, Dec. 22, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/usa-uncounted-outbreaks/

[7] Foden-Vencil, Kristian, “Study: Poor Communication

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] Branswell, “WHO releases list”