The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog


Feeling bugged by ‘superbugs’?

Posted in Health and Human Security by NTSblog on September 3, 2010
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On 10 August 2010, the director-general of the World Health Organisation declared the end of the H1N1 pandemic. However, it would appear that public health threats are never far away as researchers highlighted a new health threat looming on the horizon:  a new class of multi-drug resistant bacteria. The dangers inherent in depicting this phenomenon as one of the most important health issues that would affect all of humanity is that it undermines the public’s trust in authorities. This was seen during in the way public authorities dealt with H1N1 as they appeared to have overreacted to the emergence of a new virus strain. The exaggeration of health threats diverts attention away from more critical health issues, such as curable diseases like malaria and dengue which continue to affect poorer populations.

A paper published in the journal Lancet Infectious Diseases emphasised the apparent rapid spread of these multi-drug resistant bacteria.  The paper published details of bacteria which contained the gene New Delhi metallo-ß-lactamase-1 (NDM-1), which produces an enzyme that enables the bacteria to break down even the strongest antibiotics.

The paper was picked up in the media, giving to a myriad of hysteria-filled reports about potential of so-called superbugs to destroy civilisation as we know it, with one of the more memorable headlines which said ‘Superbug panics world‘.  One of the researchers who worked on the paper said “In many ways, this is it,” he said. “This is potentially the end. There are no antibiotics in the pipeline that have activity against NDM 1-producing Enterobacteriaceae.” Such statements ring of apocalyptic visions and risks causing greater public panic as they are perceived as expert opinion. Instead of more balanced analyses and attempting to communicate the level of risk to the public in a measured fashion, media and government authorities alike exacerbate the level of panic when they overreact to health issues.

The stories published about individuals who have died as a result of exposure to such ‘superbugs’ create the sense that all of us are susceptible to it, anyone, anytime, anywhere. Yet, the reality of the situation is less grim. Taking another multi-drug resistant bacterium, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) for example, it is a bacterium strain resistant to antibiotics, but despite its supposed ‘superbug’ status, it does not affect most people who are exposed to it. The frequency of infection is low, and occurs in patients who are weakened, old, or have recently emerged from surgery. Furthermore, such ‘superbugs’ are multi-drug resistant strains, not all-drug resistant. Even the report’s authors stated that NDM-1 is susceptible to two types of antibiotics, namely colistine and tigecycline.

Other than causing unnecessary panic and fear, such reports can also be harmful in the way that it diverts attention from other health security issues. Threats to health security are usually greater for the poor in rural areas, especially children. However, the emphasis on the dangers of multi-drug resistant bacteria serves to obfuscate severe public health problems which affect more people globally such as malaria and dengue. While it is crucial to continue research into creating new types of antibiotics to counter multi-drug resistant strains of bacteria, it is also important to recognise the need to attend to the arguably more ‘mundane’ diseases which are perhaps less newsworthy than ‘superbugs’.

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