Documentary: Rise of the Superbugs

Story at-a-glance -

  • The documentary Rise of the Superbugs details why antibiotic overuse is leading to the emergence of deadly superbugs
  • New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase 1, or NDM-1, is a gene that confers ‘super resistance’ to a growing number of lethal antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections in India and at least 35 other countries
  • Extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis (XDR TB), which has a 40 percent mortality rate, is also on the rise around the globe
  • Drug companies have little financial incentives to create new antibiotics to replace those that germs have grown resistant to, therefore few new alternatives are in the works
  • We’re now facing the perfect storm to take us back to the pre-antibiotic age, and if this occurs significant casualties are to be expected. Thankfully, there is a lot you can do to take control of your health and fend infection off naturally.

By Dr. Mercola

Antibiotic overuse is a major threat to public health, and after watching the documentary Rise of the Superbugs, you'll understand exactly why.

Diseases that were deadly prior to the invention of modern-day antibiotics are now coming back with a vengeance, having developed resistance to these once foolproof treatments.

First it was MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), once rare but now far too commonplace in medical settings, but now antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections like multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (TB), meningitis and others are spreading around the globe.

NDM-1: The Indian Superbug That Could Unleash a New Drug-Resistant Epidemic

Antibiotic overuse is rampant all over the world, including in India where antibiotics are available for low cost and without a prescription. There, it's estimated that more than half of bacterial infections in Indian hospitals are resistant to commonly used antibiotics, and many are also resistant to the more powerful, broad-spectrum antibiotics.1

A growing number of infections, however, now carry a gene called "New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase 1," or NDM-1 that confers 'super resistance' to conventional antibiotics.

Resistant to carbapenems, powerful "last-resort" intravenous antibiotics as well as at least 14 other antibiotics, NDM-1 is virtually unstoppable… and it's not staying in India, either.

Already, NDM-1 bacteria have been found in drinking water around New Delhi and in patients in over 35 countries, many of them 'medical tourists' who traveled to India for medical care then returned home to Europe, the Middle East and the Americas.2

As explained in Rise of the Superbugs, it takes just one or two such 'bugs' to transfer horizontally the genetic material that can turn other bacteria in your body into superbugs. It's very similar to what happens when you accidentally include a red shirt in the wash with your whites.

Extensively Drug-Resistant Tuberculosis Is Spreading

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the first reports of extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis, or XDR TB, began surfacing in 2006.3 Since then, cases have been on the rise, and the documentary highlights Papua New Guinea, an area where rates are particularly high (and at least one case has already transferred to neighboring Australia).

While one of the prevailing explanations for why multi-drug resistant TB (MDR TB) and XDR TB are more common is by not taking TB medications regularly, it is likely that it is the excessive use of conventional anti-tubercular agents that has driven multi- and drug-resistance; or conversely, not developing natural anti-tubercular agents which pathogens are less likely to develop resistance to, such as garlic.4

Infection control measures are also often lacking in the area hospitals, allowing XDR TB to spread to others in hospital wards more easily. So far the incidence of this disease is still rare, but it's not set to stay this way for long. As the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stated:5

"As long as XDR TB exists, the risk to people in the United States is not zero, and the U.S. public health system must address the threat."

Between 1993 and 2011, there have been 63 cases of XDR TB in the US. The disease already has a mortality rate of more than 40 percent and the concern is that within the next decade totally drug-resistant TB may become the new reality, with no form of treatment available. And, although not mentioned in the documentary, WHO now also recognizes drug-resistant gonorrhea as "an emergency," with several countries, including Australia, France, Japan, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom, experiencing increasing infections.

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Natural Approaches to Treat Infections

Interestingly, before the advent of TB antibiotics, TB was successfully treated by gradually exposing patients to progressively increasing doses of sunshine in sanatoriums. Of course, this increased their vitamin D production, which we now know has potent antibiotic qualities. So rather than relying on some new potent magic bullet to kill these bugs, maximizing a person's immune response through sun exposure and optimizing their diet is a powerful strategy.

Is the End of Antibiotics Near?

This is the direction we seem to be heading, if urgent action isn't taken to curb antibiotic overuse. Bacteria are, in essence, hard-wired to adapt to threats such as antibiotics and, at such point in time when they adapt to resist all of them, infections that were once easily treated will undoubtedly return with renewed force.

Drug companies have little financial incentive to produce new antibiotics, as most patients take them for a week or two and that's it. They don't make nearly the profits of medications meant to be taken for a lifetime, such as cholesterol-lowering medications. So new 'miracle' drugs that can replace the antibiotics that are quickly dropping off the usefulness spectrum are few and far between. We're now facing the perfect storm to take us back to the pre-antibiotic age, and if this occurs significant casualties are to be expected... Numerous bacteria are already resistant to many commonly prescribed antibiotics, including:

Acinetobacter: A bacteria found in soil and water that often causes infections in seriously ill hospital patients. Anthrax: Spread by infected animals or potentially bioterrorist weapons. Group B streptococcus: A common bacteria in newborns, the elderly and adults with other illnesses.
Klebsiella pneumonia: A bacteria that can lead to pneumonia, bloodstream infections, wound and surgical site infections and meningitis. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA): A superbug that can be so difficult to treat, it can easily progress from a superficial skin infection to a life-threatening infection in your bones, joints, bloodstream, heart valves, lungs, or surgical wounds. Neisseria meningitides: One of the leading causes of bacterial meningitis in children and young adults.
Shigella: An infectious disease caused by Shigella bacteria. Streptococcus pneumoniae: A leading cause of pneumonia, bacteremia, sinusitis, and acute otitis media (AOM). Tuberculosis (TB): Both "multi-drug resistant" and "extensively drug-resistant" forms of TB are now being seen.
Typhoid fever: A life-threatening illness caused by the Salmonella Typhi bacteria. Vancomycin-resistant enterococci (VRE): Infection with the enteroccocci bacteria that often occurs in hospitals and is resistant to vancomycin, an antibiotic. Vancomycin-Intermediate/Resistant Staphylococcus aureus (VISA/VRSA): Various strains of staph bacteria that are resistant to vancomycin.

This Is a Major Reason to Avoid Hospitals as Much as Possible

In many cases, hospitalization, surgery or the use of medical devices like ventilators or catheters are implicated in the spread of drug-resistant superbugs. The infection is spread by contaminated medical equipment and by physical contact between patients and healthcare personnel. Many superbugs are growing increasingly resistant to the standard sterilization procedures used on medical equipment.

Medical procedures can also be to blame, such as the prostate biopsy mentioned in the documentary. Even though the patient was taking precautionary antibiotics for the procedure, they didn't work and he ended up with a drug-resistant form of E. coli attacking his entire body and threatening his life.

In the US, more than 2 million people are affected by hospital-acquired infections, many of them drug-resistant, every year, and 100,000 people die as a result. This is one reason why it's best to avoid hospitals except when absolutely necessary. And if you do end up in one, help minimize your exposure to infectious agents by insisting that all medical personnel and visitors wash their hands before touching you or handling medical equipment that will touch you. Also refrain from touching other patients, and if you do, make sure your hands are clean. Wash you hands often, including:

  1. After using the restroom.
  2. Before preparing or eating food.
  3. Before touching your eyes, nose, or mouth, and after coughing or sneezing or blowing your nose.
  4. Before and after touching wound dressings or bandages.
  5. After touching hospital surfaces such as bed rails, bedside tables, doorknobs, remote controls, or your phone.

Agricultural Antibiotic Use Is an Often-Overlooked Problem

The other variable that needs to be addressed is the elimination of antibiotics as growth stimulants to animals. The US uses nearly 30 million pounds of antibiotics annually in food production. Livestock antibiotic use accounts for 80 percent of the total antibiotics sold in the US and the vast majority of those are not given to treat infections but to stimulate growth. Compare this to the 6 million pounds of antibiotics that are used for every man, woman and child in the US combined. CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), in particular, are hotbeds for breeding antibiotic-resistant bacteria because of the continuous feeding of low doses of antibiotics to the animals, which allows pathogens to survive, adapt, and eventually, thrive.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) ruled that antibiotic resistance is a major threat to public health, worldwide, and the primary cause for this man-made epidemic is the widespread misuse of antibiotics.6 Already in the US, research has been published showing that CAFO workers were found to be carrying pig MRSA, and that farmers at pig farms that use antibiotics are more likely to contract MRSA from the pigs than workers at antibiotic-free farms.7

Writing in the British Medical Journal (BMJ),8 David Wallinga, MD, Senior Advisor in Science, Food and Health with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy argues that the routine addition of antibiotics to animal feed is not a necessary component for animal feed and is contributing to a coming 'catastrophe' of antibiotic resistance. Unfortunately, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has continually fallen short in this regard. Instead of enforcing stricter regulations, the agency has simply asked food producers to voluntarily limit their use of certain antibiotics.

What Can You Do to Make Your Body Less Hospitable to Superbugs?

You can help yourself and your community by only purchasing antibiotic-free meats and other foods, and using antibiotics only when absolutely necessary. This is an important step that I urge everyone to take, even though ultimately the problem of antibiotic-resistance needs to be stemmed on a nationwide level. And avoid sugar as that will tend to imbalance your gut flora, which is one of your primary defenses against infections.

That said, your lifestyle choices are the most critical factors in determining the health of your immune system, which determines your ability to resist infections. The stronger your immune defenses, the less chance a microbe will have of gaining a foothold in some part of your body. Below are some basic strategies for supercharging your immune system. You may also want to download my free special report about how to protect yourself from super germs.

  • Optimize your diet. Avoid foods that tax your immune system such as synthetic trans fats, fried foods, processed foods, sugar and grains; reduce carbohydrates (sugar, grains, fructose) and protein, replacing them with high-quality fats. Fifty to 70 percent of your total intake should be fat. Most of your diet should be fresh, whole foods, like organic vegetables and grass-pastured meats and dairy, and beneficial fats, such as butter and fermented dairy from grass-pastured animals, cheese, egg yolks, and avocados.
  • A great portion of your immune system resides in your GI tract, which depends on a healthy, balanced gut flora. One of the best ways to support this is by incorporating naturally fermented foods into your diet, working up to 4-6 ounces per day. One large serving of several ounces of fermented foods can supply you with around 10 trillion beneficial bacteria, which is about 10 percent of the population of your gut.

    The best way to learn how to ferment foods properly is to get the GAPS book or listen to my interview with Caroline Barringer. You can take a high-quality probiotic supplement, but the actual fermented foods offer the highest benefit.

  • Exercise regularly. Exercise improves the circulation of immune cells in your blood. The better these cells circulate, the more efficient your immune system is at locating and eliminating pathogens in your body. Make sure your fitness plan incorporates weight training, high-intensity exercises, stretching and core work.
  • Get plenty of restorative sleep. Recent research shows sleep deprivation has the same effect on your immune system as physical stress or disease, which is why you may feel ill after a sleepless night.
  • Have good stress-busting outlets. High levels of stress hormones can diminish your immunity, so be sure you're implementing some sort of stress management. Meditation, prayer, yoga, and Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) are all excellent strategies for managing stress, but you'll have to find what works best for you.
  • Optimize your vitamin D levels. Studies have shown that inadequate vitamin D can increase your risk for MRSA and other infections, which can likely be extended to other superbugs. Your best source of vitamin D is through exposing your skin to the sun or using a safe tanning bed. Monitor your vitamin D levels to confirm they're in the therapeutic range, 50-70 ng/ml. If you can't get UV exposure, consider taking an oral vitamin D supplement.

In addition to the basic lifestyle measures listed above, there are natural agents that science has shown to be naturally antibacterial. The following deserve special mention.

  • Vitamin C. Vitamin C's role in preventing and treating infectious disease is well established. Intravenous vitamin C is an option, but if you don't have access to a practitioner who can administer it, liposomal vitamin C is the most potent oral form. For more information on vitamin C, listen to my interview with Dr. Ronald Hunninghake, an internationally recognized vitamin C expert. If you choose to supplement with vitamin C, liposomal C seems to be the best form to use.
  • Garlic. Garlic is a powerful antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal. It can stimulate your immune system, help wounds heal, and kill antibiotic-resistant bacteria (including MRSA and multi-drug resistant tuberculosis), plus it has shown more than 100 other health promoting properties.9 For highest potency, the garlic should be eaten fresh and raw (chopped or smashed.)
  • Olive leaf extract. In vitro studies show olive leaf extract is effective against Klebsiella, a gram-negative bacteria, inhibiting its replication, in addition to being toxic to other pathogenic microbes.
  • Manuka honey. Manuka honey, made from the flowers and pollen of the Manuka bush, has been shown to be more effective than antibiotics in the treatment of serious, hard-to-heal skin infections. Clinical trials have found Manuka honey can effectively eradicate more than 250 clinical strains of bacteria, including resistant varieties such as MRSA.
  • Tea tree oil. Tea tree oil is a natural antiseptic proven to kill many bacterial strains (including MRSA).10
  • Colloidal silver. Colloidal silver has been regarded as an effective natural antibiotic for centuries, and recent research shows it can even help eradicate antibiotic-resistant pathogens. If you are interested in this treatment, make sure you read the latest guidelines for safe usage of colloidal silver as there are risks with using it improperly.
  • Copper. Replacing fixtures with certain copper alloys can help kill bacteria, even superbugs. Installing copper faucets, light switches, toilet seats and push plates in germ-infested areas such as hospitals and nursing homes could potentially save thousands of lives each year.