Superbugs, is the risk real?

When antibiotics were first introduced in the 1930’s and 40’s, they were considered a wonder drug—and many lives have been saved since.

In recent years however, we have seen a rise in bacteria or ‘superbugs’ that have adapted to become resistant to multiple antibiotics.

Antibiotics are used in both human and animal medicine and drug-resistant bacteria can be passed between animals and humans (and vice versa) via direct contact and through food.

So linking data from animals, agriculture and food with that of humans is fundamental to the comprehensive prevention and containment of antimicrobial resistance (AMR).

The University of Adelaide has joined the fight against ‘superbugs’ in Australian pets and livestock as well as humans.

The School of Animal and Veterinary Sciences is conducting a pilot study, the first of its kind for the nation, to research the prevalence of resistance to all major classes of antibiotic for two key groups of pathogens, Escherichia coli and Staphylococcus, in livestock and pets.

Every veterinary diagnostic laboratory in Australia is involved in the project, sending samples to the Roseworthy Campus for analysis.

Veterinary microbiologist, Associate Professor Darren Trott (pictured), is heading up the project’s cross-disciplinary team.

Associate Professor Trott has also been awarded an Australian Research Council grant in collaboration with the Animal Health Company Zoetis to further characterise the bacteria obtained during the pilot study, and has won the tender to write a report for the Federal Government on developing a national plan for antimicrobial resistance surveillance in animal populations.

Associate Professor Trott’s vital work will do more than protect animals from ‘superbugs’—it will have far-reaching consequences in the battle between superbugs and antibiotics in the human world.

These projects compliment a new move by the Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care, appointing the University of Adelaide’s Professor John Turnidge as Senior Medical Advisor to lead work on a national surveillance program for antimicrobial resistance in humans.

Professor Turnidge and Associate Professor Trott are working closely together to study AMR in humans and animals under a ‘one health’ strategy to unite human and veterinary medicine in the fight against the emergence of ‘superbugs’.

The three-year project aims to improve surveillance of AMR and antibiotic usage.

They are working towards a National Coordinated Surveillance System, while supporting a range of strategies to contain superbugs and encourage the appropriate use of antibiotics in both human and animal settings.

Until now, there has been little national coordination to manage the spread of new ‘superbugs’ in humans. Instead it has been left up to states and territories to manage infections in hospitals, with the Federal Government monitoring aged care and general practice.

You might ask why not just develop better drugs? The new antimicrobial pipeline is empty, with no new classes of drug developed for many years, though recent global initiatives have reinvigorated this effort. However, the timeline from drug discovery to market is a long one, often taking 15–20 years. Until new drugs become available, we must make the best use of our existing antimicrobials in both humans and animals.

The work of these Adelaide researchers is vital as the world faces the very real possibility of a return to non-treatable bacterial infections.

Related links:
The Conversation, December 2012 – The hunt is on for superbugs in Australian animals
ABC News, June 2016 – Australia winning against superbugs in animals
Professor Darren Trott
Dr John Turnidge 


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