Be alert, not alarmed: the risks posed by superbugs are all too real and cases are on the rise.
So what are 'superbugs'? 'Superbug' is a term invented to describe bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. Some of the most common are golden staph, MRSA (or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), VRE (or vancomycin-resistant Enterococci), and Neisseria gonorrhoeae (which causes gonorrhoea).
In late 2015, Chinese and British scientists discovered a new strain of E. coli which is not only resistant to antibiotics, but also has the ability to infect other bacteria and increase their resistance.
Pharmaceutical companies have called on world leaders to work with them to reduce the growing problem of antibiotic-resistant superbugs, with experts suggesting that if action isn't taken, the spread of drug-resistant bacteria could lead to an additional 10 million deaths per year by 2050.
The risks to hospital patients
Usually, these bacteria are harmless and many people carry them around on their skin or in their system. However, the risks are increasing, with these bacteria being found in food and water supplies around the world.
Superbugs pose a particular problem for hospitals because a patient’s situation can become far more serious if bacteria gets into their bloodstream, particularly when they’re already unwell because of recent surgery or chronic disease. There are also plenty of opportunities for this type of infection to happen in a place where the residents commonly have open wounds, catheters and IVs, and it can cause serious issues for patients who come out of hospital in worse shape than when they go in. In the absence of effective antibiotics, these blood-borne infections can have devastating effects, even causing death.
Reducing the threat
Unfortunately hospitals will never be able to completely eradicate the risk, but there are some simple steps you can take to minimise the spread of infection in hospitals. The simple act of washing your hands properly (and insisting visitors do the same) can help enormously— hand hygiene campaigns in England and Wales have been proven to contribute to a significant fall in superbug infection rates.
Having scared the living daylights out of you, I think it's important to stress that overall rates of preventable infections are still extremely low. But there remains a risk, and it's one that people should be aware of. If you have symptoms of infection or are concerned about your health, see your local doctor or hospital—the earlier the treatment, the better. In fact, the cases where we’ve seen doctors and hospitals fail in their duty of care is when there has been a delay in diagnosing and properly treating the infection, which has spread and become harder to treat as a result.
Tom Ballantyne is a senior associate in Maurice Blackburn's Melbourne office.