Flu bugs develop drug resistance when a virus mutates in a way that makes medications ineffective. Overusing and misusing antiviral meds can cause the problem. But mutations can also crop up spontaneously, even when the drugs aren’t overprescribed, says Anne Moscona, MD, a flu expert and an infectious-diseases physician at Weill Medical College of Cornell University and New York Presbyterian Hospital.
“Swine flu seems to respond to Tamiflu, but we weren’t sure at first. And we’re seeing more strains of other types of flu, including some bird flu, that are resistant to it. That’s been sobering for lots of people in public health because Tamiflu is the drug the country has been stockpiling for a possible pandemic,” she says. “The issue we’re facing now is ‘What do we do if the drugs we’re counting on don’t work?’”
This question is being asked with increasing urgency these days, as more and more bugs, including some truly nasty bacteria, become impervious to the effects of our best drugs. Acne and some STDs aren’t clearing up the way they once did.
More worrisome, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)bacteria that are resistant to methicillin, a common antibioticnow kills more people in U.S. hospitals than HIV, AIDS, and tuberculosis combined. And, scarier still, the bug is becoming increasingly common outside of hospitals, affecting everyone from infants with ear infections to young, healthy athletes. And MRSA, experts warn, is just the tip of the drug-resistance iceberg.
“Drug-resistant bacteria have developed in large part because of our overuse and misuse of antibioticsand it has led us to a crisis point,” says Helen W. Boucher, MD, a specialist in the division of infectious diseases at Tufts Medical Center in Boston. “We’re even seeing bugs today that are resistant to all antibiotics.”
But while some germs may be outpacing our ability to kill them, we’re not completely defenseless. In fact, there are plenty of things we can do to slow their spread. Here, five of the scariest threats right now, and what you can do to keep yourselfand future generationssafe.