Rachel Sears was just 17 when a simple blemish on her face transformed overnight into a terrifying and painful ‘superbug’.
She worked as a cashier at a grocery store and it was there that her doctors told her she must have caught the antibiotic-resistant bacteria, possibly from cash handled by an infected person.
She probably scratched or just rubbed the spot on her forehead — nothing out of the ordinary — and inadvertently got infected, she said.
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“I remember thinking, ‘Oh, it has a weird puffy feeling.’ And I went to bed like nothing,” Sears said, recalling the hours after her shift.
“I woke up the next morning and it was so swollen. It was huge.
She was immediately taken to hospital where, 12 hours later, doctors determined it was methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and she was placed on intravenous antibiotics, used for infections. resistant to oral antibiotics.
Sears, now 32, says the experience was “traumatic” as she was just a teenager at the time.
“My mom was like, ‘What’s going on? That’s my baby.’ They are like big scary words,” she recalls.
“Then you do a few Google searches afterwards and you think, ‘what if that didn’t work? What if the antibiotics didn’t work? So what? Then I’m screwed because they used the strongest antibiotics’ , she said.
“So that was scary.”
Sadly, that wasn’t to be the last time she contracted an antibiotic-resistant infection.
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Sears says she contracted at least two staph infections from routine abrasions, such as shaving cuts, over the next few years. Then, a year after the birth of her son, she was diagnosed with the gut superbug Clostridioides difficile, better known as C. difficile.
Eventually, she turned to the help of a naturopathic doctor, which she says led to a marked improvement in her health.
“I just can’t help but think it comes down to getting this first superbug and then these antibiotics,” she said.
The growing threat of so-called superbugs, or antibiotic-resistant infections, is just one of many concerns in what some experts say is a dangerous global rise in antimicrobial resistance (AMR) – a phenomenon that occurs when bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites no longer respond to antimicrobial agents such as antibiotics, fungicides, antiviral agents and parasiticides.
It’s a problem that may not receive regular public or media attention, but concerns about this growing phenomenon have become so widespread that it’s been called a “silent pandemic” that’s contributing to millions of deaths each year, according to the World Infectious Diseases Report. disease specialists.
According to their study published in The Lancet.
Dr. Susan Poutanen, a medical microbiologist and infectious disease specialist at the University Health Network and Sinai Health, says that in Canada, about 14,000 deaths each year are associated in some way with antimicrobial resistance.
“It’s sort of an unacknowledged, silent or silent pandemic,” Poutanen said.
“Every year there is growing resistance, and yet there is not the same face to the problem that you might have with, say, cancer or with heart attacks and strokes and the incredible public campaigns and awareness (of these health risks).”
This lack of public awareness not only means that Canadians are left in the dark about the threats of AMR, but also that investments and the search for solutions also do not receive priority treatment, she said. added.
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According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the main driver of antimicrobial resistance is the misuse and overuse of antibiotics, both in the management of human disease and in industrial agriculture and food production.
And the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the problem of overprescribing and overusing antibiotics, experts say.
Early in the outbreak, many patients admitted to hospitals with SARS-CoV-2 were given antibiotics, even when it was not clear that a bacterial infection was present, Poutanen said.
Antibiotics are not effective against viruses and should only be used for bacterial infections, she noted.
“We know that when someone presents with what is most likely a viral illness in a clinician’s best judgment, there’s often still a ‘Well, what if? It might not be a reaction to give an antimicrobial, even though it’s probably not a bacterial infection,” she said.
“We have certainly learned since some of this data has been shared with clinicians that there are very few (COVID-19 patients) who arrive with a bacterial infection, and that has certainly improved some of this empirical choice of ‘use antibacterials.
But the current surge in respiratory disease in Canada is also likely to trigger “increased use and overuse” of antibiotics, which only increases concerns and the prevalence of drug resistance, she added.
The overuse of antibiotics in Canada is not limited to health care. Growers of field crops like citrus and rice often make heavy use of antimicrobial sprays; antibiotics are often used as growth promoters and administered proactively to prevent infection of livestock and the antifungals used by the tulip industry and other agricultural crops also contribute to a growing resistance to fungal infections, says Dr. John Conly, an infectious disease physician and professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Calgary, who has worked in the area of antimicrobial resistance for 25 years.
“We’re seeing this huge overuse of antibiotics and we’re seeing a steady increase in rates of resistant organisms,” he said.
For example, in Canada, about 26% of infections that occur are resistant to first-line antibiotics, he noted. Experts in this field predict that this resistance could grow exponentially in the coming years, with some estimates ranging from 40 to 100 percent resistance to first-line antibiotics and antifungals by 2050, Conly said.
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“That’s a major concern.”
That is why specialists and leaders around the world are increasingly trying to shed light on this issue, with the help of the WHO.
Last week, the WHO held its third “High Level Ministerial Conference on Antimicrobial Resistance”, where a manifesto was created that sets three global goals to address this challenge.
Goals include: reducing the total amount of antimicrobials used in agri-food systems by at least 30-50% by 2030; ending the use of medically important antimicrobials for growth promotion in animals; and ensure that a specific category of 48 antibiotics that are affordable, safe and have a low risk of antimicrobial resistance (known as “access group antibiotics”) represents at least 60% of the overall antibiotic consumption in the man by 2030.
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Conly says faster diagnoses in clinical settings – to reduce over-testing and pre-prescription of antibiotics – and digital guidelines on antibiotic use in healthcare would also help curb the spread of drug resistance. antimicrobials.
Ultimately, if more is not done to address this problem, more superbugs will spread more widely, leading to more preventable illness and death in Canada and around the world, he said.
“It’s like a tsunami emerging, but it’s far offshore and you don’t see it,” Conly said. “And then one day it’s suddenly going to emerge and we’re going to say, ‘Didn’t we see this coming? “”