The Rise Of Antibiotic Resistant Superbugs

It's all been downhill since MRSA. Here's how antibiotics went from silver bullets to fodder for superbugs

(Illustration: R. A. Di Ieso)
Dec 01, 2015 at 6:59 PM ET

Superbugs are a serious problem. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that at least 2 million people become infected with antibiotic resistant bacteria each year, and that 23,000 people die from these infections. And the numbers are only getting worse. We’ve recently seen the rise of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (or “MRSA”) Salmonella superbugs and now E. coli that can defeat even last-ditch antibiotics, such as colistin.

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Bacteria likely develop antibiotic resistance due to doctors overprescribing medications, patients failing to take their pills as prescribed and farmers pumping livestock full of unnecessary antibiotics. This sort of cavalier behavior allows bacteria to evolve genes that can thwart antibiotics. In any case, one thing is for sure—antibiotic resistance is not a new problem, nor is it one with an easy answer. There’s some hope out there, in the form of new antibiotics, but sooner or later the end of antibiotic efficacy may be inevitable. Here’s a brief history of antibiotic resistance: