Here are the stories behind the superbug bacteria and viruses that have specialists desperately searching for solutions.
They move by air and by touch, through the sting of a mosquito, a sneeze, a surgical incision or badly-washed hands. They can cause fever, pneumonia, organ failure, joint pain and even death. Bacteria and viruses will still be here when we are no more—becoming resistant to whatever modern medicine throws at them.
Flu shots that worked one year are not as successful the next. Antibiotics have been abused for years. Even when they’re used properly, they still don’t destroy every bacterium they target. This is where it gets scary: once bacteria thwart one antibiotic, they soon learn to resist another and another until they become superbugs.
While he was sleeping
In March last year, Juan David Díaz Valenzuela had been in an induced coma for 60 days with severe pancreatitis. Sometime during the fifth week, Klebsiella Pneumoniae bacteria burrowed their way into his body.
It’s these types of bacteria that worry specialists most. Klebsiella Pneumoniae lurks in the gut, is transferred via the hands and attacks the most vulnerable. The effect can be catastrophic, from bloody sputum to organs that shut down—and death.
Only 39, Díaz Valenzuela had been put under in the intensive care unit at the Reina Sofía hospital in Córdoba, Spain.
He knows he’s lucky to be alive today. “Two cases—me and another man—survived this outbreak,” he says. “The other patients who were infected died.”
He’s also angry, “My life has changed completely, from having a normal job to not knowing if I can ever go back to work.”
The sprouts did it
At first, Michael Frotscher thought nothing of it. A neuroscientist at the University of Hamburg, he figured the diarrhoea would simply go away. Then the blood came, and so did reports of people infected with the drug-resistant Escherichia coli, including 12 colleagues.
It was May 2011. Michael was 64, tall and lean. He was planning to run the Berlin Marathon in September. Now, he was one of 4,075 people affected by this outbreak, which originated in sprouts contaminated with a deadly shiga-toxin-producing E.coli strain.
E.coli has been around forever and most strains don’t cause any harm to humans. In this case, 50 people died. As a doctor, Michael knows exactly how close he came to being among that number. He was given an antibody that hadn’t been through all the trials yet because there was no other choice. He had a central nervous system infection. And he survived.
You have a superbug
In August last year, after being diagnosed with lymphoblastic leukemia, losing his hips, his motorbike and his wife of 12 years, Bas Jonker tested positive for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. Otherwise known as MRSA, it is the most notorious cause of antibiotic-resistant infections contracted in healthcare situations around the world.
Bas's immune system was already weakened by the treatments for his leukemia. Now 33, thin, with a sparse beard, he had endured several treatments with new, stronger antibiotics to stave off the possibility of a blood infection from the MRSA. They made him very nauseated, and Bas was relieved to hear from doctors in March that, after seven months, he was finally clear.
One in every 100 Europeans is thought to be an MRSA carrier, but most will never know. For MRSA, the risk comes when, like Bas, you have a weakened immune system. For example, if you have a urinary catheter or IV line, if you suffer a cut while playing a contact sport, or live or work in a communal environment such as a military training camp. In all these circumstances, you’re at risk of developing an infection that could potentially kill you.
Remember the bug spray
Soon after Fabien Duquenne, 50, and his wife, Nadine, 52, arrived in Guadeloupe last year, their host informed them that her son had contracted something called Chikungunya.
It was the first time they had heard of the disease. Until recently, outbreaks were mostly limited to Africa and Asia. Now Italy, the Caribbean, Brazil and the US state of Florida are just a few of the places where tiger mosquitoes carrying variations of the Chikungunya virus have turned up.
Chikungunya spreads quickly. In 2005–2006, more than 272,000 people in La Réunion (38 percent of the population) were infected with the virus. During an outbreak in the Caribbean last year, 113 people died and thousands more were infected.
After three weeks, the couple were bitten. “The first thing I felt was a headache and I felt feverish, like I had the flu,” says Fabien.
All physicians could do was screen their blood to determine the progress of the virus and prescribe anti-inflammatories to calm the symptoms. Fabien’s symptoms, especially the joint pain, come back on regular basis.
“It hurts,” he says, “when I can’t kick a football around with my grandson.”
A vaccine has been ongoing for 20 years but so far to no avail. For now researchers are focusing on ways to stop mosquitos from breeding.
Is there good news?
Yes, at least when it comes to Europe. Pharmaceutical research promises stronger antibiotics between two to five years down the road. Procedures such as a faecal transplant have also proved an effective way to cure even the most persistent cases of infection.
Successful hygiene campaigns in Western Europe have resulted in fewer cases of infections such as MRSA and C.difficile, says Harbarth. And there has been progress in the development of diagnostic procedures so that doctors know what they’re dealing with, without having to wait for lab results.
In places like La Réunion, experts are working on ways to curtail mosquitoes’ breeding and maybe one day there will be a vaccination to protect us from Chikungunya.
“Let’s say I’m cautiously optimistic for the next five to 10 years,” Harbarth says. “Think of it this way: more patients will die from car accidents than superbugs during that time."
“What bugs will be around in 2030? That’s difficult to predict. When you specialise in infectious diseases, you’re facing an enemy much smarter than we are.”