For those who watch the efforts to combat chronic diseases from the sidelines, it’s easy to see the war as one where humans are the underdogs facing a huge, formidable enemy. And it’s easy to see the progress made over the past several years and feel we’re slowly, surely pushing the enemy back through a combination of luck, determination, and cutting edge science. But it’s worth remembering in this war, the enemy is almost always a moving target.
Case in point: British researchers have identified a new “superbug” bacteria that can cause severe pneumonia and is resistant to many antibiotics. That makes it particularly lethal for people living with cystic fibrosis. Their lungs are already ill-equipped to deal with respiratory illnesses and infections.
Worse, the bacteria (called Mycobacterium abscessus) has made the evolutionary leap from environmental contract to person-to-person contract. That means CF patients can pick up the disease either from surfaces or through the air—especially in places like hospitals.
And just to add the ick-flavored icing on this bacterial cake…
The superbug picks up strength as it passes from person to person. It has now spread globally—cases have been reported across Europe, the United States, and Australia.
A bacterial infection like this is hard enough to treat for people who don’t have cystic fibrosis. Patients that have been treated have required 18 months of hardcore antibiotics, and only a third of those cases were successfully cured. For those with CF and other lung conditions, it’s absolutely lethal.
So how do we fight against this new weapon in Mother Nature’s arsenal?
Much the same way we do every other one: Gaining a better understanding of the problem and its scope, then using that knowledge to formulate a response. The researchers are optimistic that they have a better handle on the mechanics of how the bacteria spreads, and by sequencing the genes of the bacteria are optimistic they can pinpoint more effective treatments.
Until then, the best tactic for cystic fibrosis patients is a continued vigilance and awareness of the risks. This new battle in the war against illness will require a lot of patience and hard work—but that will make victory all the sweeter.