The threat of antibiotic-resistant superbugs has become a global concern. Last year, to help countries prioritize their efforts to research and develop new antibiotics, the World Health Organization[i] has created a list of the top twelve most dangerous superbugs.
A panel of international experts[ii] at the WHO used four criteria to determine which disease-causing bacteria made the list:[iii]
- Prevalence in the general community
- Overall mortality rates
- Burden on the health care system
- Level of resistance to treatment
The twelve bacteria that ranked highest on their list are the most dangerous bacteria on the planet today.
The Threat of Antibiotic Resistance
Concern over antibiotic-resistant superbugs[iv] is becoming more and more important. Every year, antibiotic resistance in the United States is responsible for 2 million illnesses and almost 23,000 deaths.[v] Most fatalities come from people with weak immune systems, including cancer patients, infants, and the elderly. A widespread, antibiotic-resistant superbug epidemic is just a matter of time. There are diseases now resistant to every antibiotic we have available.
One reason why the supply of antibiotics has dwindled to dangerously low levels is because new drugs are difficult to create. Seventy years of antibiotic research discovered dozens of effective drugs. But new ones aren’t being developed fast enough to beat the resistant stains. There have been decades of overuse of antibiotics by both humans and livestock. It’s easy to see that a perfect storm of antibiotic-resistant superbugs is brewing.
Pharmaceutical companies aren’t likely to create new antibiotics anytime soon. They take years to develop[vi], and most aren’t profitable enough for drug companies to invest millions in research and development. There has not been a new antibiotic brought to the market since 1984. It looks like there is less of a chance that a new “miracle drug” will be on the market anytime soon.
Nonetheless, the stakes have never been higher to become better prepared to fight against antibiotic-resistant superbugs.
The superbugs that made the WHO list are separated into three categories: critical, high, and medium.
Priority 1: Critical
According to the WHO, there are three types of superbugs that require immediate attention in order to keep them under control. They are categorized as a critical priority because each one is multi-drug resistant and often prove fatal in hospitals and nursing homes.
1 Acinetobacter baumannii, carbapenem-resistant
Acinetobacter baumannii is highly drug resistant and affects people with compromised immune systems, meaning it often leads to pneumonia and is increasingly responsible for deadly blood infections in hospital patients.
2 Pseudomonas aeruginosa, carbapenem-resistant
Highly adaptable in developing antibiotic resistance, pseudomonas aeruginosa is responsible for skin rashes, ear infections, blood infections, and often deadly bouts of pneumonia in hospital patients.
3 Enterobacteriaceae, carbapenem-resistant, 3rd generation cephalosporin-resistant
As a family of bacteria often found in the human gut, enterobacteriaceae has been called a “nightmare bacteria”[vii] by health officials. It is resistant to over a dozen antibiotics and kills half of all infected patients. Hospitals are the main place to contract enterobacteriaceae. It is known to cause urinary tract infections and pneumonia.
Priority 2: High
Next on the WHO list are a variety of multi-drug resistant microbes that spread quickly and are dangerous to contract, including staph infections, salmonella, and gonorrhea.
4 Enterococcus faecium, vancomycin-resistant
Though often harmless in the human intestine, enterococcus faecium can also cause dangerous diseases like meningitis and endocarditis.
5 Staphylococcus aureus, methicillin-resistant, vancomycin intermediate and resistant
More commonly known as MRSA[viii], staphylococcus aureus is the bacteria responsible for roughly one third of flesh-eating bacteria[ix] in the United States. This superbug is a prime cause of skin and respiratory infections and food poisoning. Often it is resistant to penicillin. MRSA is regularly found[x] in hospitals.
6 Helicobacter pylori, clarithrocin-resistant
Often present in the stomachs of people with gastric ulcers, helicobacter pylori has been linked to stomach cancer.[xi] The majority of infected patients don’t show any symptoms. Strains of antibiotic-resistant helicobacter pylori are becoming more common, making effective treatment very difficult.
7 Campylobacter, fluoroquinolone-resistant
Found in poultry, campylobacter[xii] spreads to people who eat the contaminated meat. This microbe causes blood diseases, diarrhea, and food poisoning, especially in developing countries that do not have access to proper antibiotics.[xiii]
8 Salmonella spp., fluoroquinolone-resistant
Found worldwide, strains of salmonella cause a variety of illnesses, including typhoid fever and food poisoning. Throughout the U.S., an estimated 1.4 million people[xiv] become ill from salmonella every year. Infants, young children, and the elderly are most at risk.
9 Neisseria gonorrhoeae, 3rd generation cephalosporin-resistant, fluoroquinolone-resistant
Shaped like a coffee bean, neisseria gonorrhoeae is responsible for an antibiotic-resistant superbug of the sexually transmitted disease gonorrhea. Antibiotic resistance against penicillin was widespread by the 1940s. Today most forms of neisseria gonorrhoeae are resistant to every drug but cephalosporin, which is “the last line of defense.”[xv]
Priority 3: Medium
Childhood infections make up the “medium priority” for the WHO. However, many researchers fear that antibiotic-resistant superbugs will soon become more widespread.
10 Streptococcus pneumoniae, penicillin-non-susceptible
While Streptococcus pneumoniae is relatively common in the lungs of healthy people. However, those with weaker immune systems (like children and the elderly) often come down with pneumonia, infections, and meningitis.[xvi]
11 Haemophilus influenzae, ampicillin-resistant
Once thought to be the cause of the flu, haemophilus influenza is still known as “bacterial influenza.” Actually, it’s responsible for infections like bacterial meningitis, pneumonia, and infectious arthritis. It is resistant to penicillin antibiotics.
12 Shigella spp., fluoroquinolone-resistant
Naturally found in humans and gorillas, shigella is a leading cause of diarrhea worldwide. It contributes to 74,000 to 600,000 deaths every year.[xvii] Many of the antibiotics used aren’t working any longer.
The looming threat of antibiotic-resistant superbugs is a medical issue likely to be the talk of the 21st century. The WHO hopes that making this information public will help bring proper research and new discoveries in the fight against these antibiotic-resistant superbugs.
(This is an updated version of an article that was originally published August 3, 2017.)
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