Elizabeth Taylor got a lethal infection on the set of 'Cleopatra' and today a similar 'Phantom Menace' superbug is spreading

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Drug-Resistant Superbugs, Step Aside

If general practice doctors were handing out prescriptions for harmful drugs like candy, we'd do something about it, right?

Perhaps not.

Thanks to years of research, we have a clear and stark image of what's going to happen when nightmare bacteria stop responding to the panoply of medications we throw at them.

In India, the nightmarish scenario is already unfolding: thousands of newborns there died last year of infections caused by superbugs too powerful for antibiotics.

"Five years ago, we almost never saw these kinds of infections," New Delhi neonatologist Neelam Kler told The Times. "Now, close to 100% of the babies referred to us have multi-drug resistant infections. It's scary."

But it isn't a new development, and experts have seen it coming: In 1961 on the set of "Cleopatra," actress Elizabeth Taylor contracted a deadly infection caused by staph bacteria that were resistant to penicillin. It was methicillin, a new synthetic form of penicillin developed for this reason, which likely saved her life.

One of the chief drivers of antibiotic resistance, i.e. superbugs, is our zealous overprescription of antibiotics. More often than not, doctors are prescribing the drugs for ailments that they don't even treat. And the problem is global:

  • In the US, some 60% of people brought to doctor's offices and emergency rooms by sore throats — one of the tell-tale symptoms of common colds and the flu, both of which are caused by viruses — walk out with prescriptions for antibiotics, which kill bacteria, one long-term study found.
  • A British study found that people who visited general practice doctors complaining of coughs and colds got antibiotics 51% of the time.
  • Last year, 23,000 Americans died from bacterial infections that didn't respond to antibiotics.
  • Between 2000 and 2010, international sales of antibiotics for human use shot up 36%, with Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa making up three-quarters of that increase.
  • American farmers continue to overuse antibiotics in pigs, cattle, and chickens, creating stronger, more resistant bacterial strains.

What's driving the resistance?

When Paul Ehrlich — whose discoveries were made popular nearly a decade later by Alexander Fleming and his discovery of penicillin — coined the idea of a "magic bullet" which wiped out disease-causing bacteria while leaving its human hosts unharmed, his developments were hailed as a leap forward in medical science.

Ehrlich's discovery became the foundation for wonder drugs known as antibiotics: Drugs that could expertly target and destroy harmful microbes which caused deadly bacterial infections. They were exceedingly popular. A 2006 paper in the Canadian Journal of Infectious Diseases and Medical Microbiology hails the 1950s and 60s as the "golden age" of antibiotic discovery.

Yet within years, scientists began to watch with dismay as the bacteria developed resistance to the drugs.

It happened with surprising speed: In 1961 on the set of "Cleopatra," actress Elizabeth Taylor contracted a highly lethal lung infection caused by staph bacteria. But there was a problem: The bacteria were already resistant to penicillin. Methicillin, a new synthetic form of penicillin developed for this reason, was credited with saving Taylor's life.

Today, only about 10% of staph infections can be cured with penicillin. And the new, more vicious strain, known as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (or MRSA), doesn't respond to methicillin either.

Antibiotic resistance isn't new. "Within two to three years after the introduction of a new antibiotic treatment, resistance usually develops," the authors of the 2006 paper state.

It's about time we do something to address it. Perhaps we could start by curbing our zealous over-prescription of the drugs.

RELATED: See more antibiotic-resistant diseases

10 PHOTOS
Antibiotic-Resistant Germs White House
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Elizabeth Taylor got a lethal infection on the set of 'Cleopatra' and today a similar 'Phantom Menace' superbug is spreading
In this undated photo provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is one form of CRE bacteria, sometimes called ânightmare bacteria.â CRE bacteria is blamed for 600 deaths each year, and can withstand treatment from virtually every type of antibiotic. (Photo via CDC)
Enterococcus, Sem, Vancomycin Resistant Enterococci, Vre, Common Infections Caused By Enterococci Are Urinary Tract Infections And Wound Infections. (Photo By BSIP/UIG via Getty Images)
Scanning Electron Micrograph of Burkholderia cepacia. (Photo by: Media for Medical/UIG via Getty Images)
Methicillin Resistant Golden Staph Staphylococcus Aureus Mrsa, Scanning Electron Micrograph Colorized Sem, X 9560, The Line Represents Two Microns. These Bacteria Are Gram Positive Cocci And Facultative Anaerobes That Typically Gather In Clusters, As We See It Here. Golden Staph Is Responsible For Food Poisoning, Cutaneous Infections, Pneumonia, Toxic Shock Syndrome, . . . The Mrsa Is One Of The Most Frequent Multiresistant Bacterial Strains In Healthcare Facilities Hospital Acquired Infections. Golden Staph Staphylococcus Aureus > Staphylococcus > Staphylococcaceae > Bacillales > Firmicutes > Bacterium. This 2005 Scanning Electron Micrograph Sem Depicted Numerous Clumps Of Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus Bacteria, Commonly Referred To By The Acronym, Mrsa; Magnified 9560X. Recently Recognized Outbreaks, Or Clusters Of Mrsa In Community Settings Have Been Associated With Strains That Have Some Unique Microbiologic And Genetic Properties, Compared With The Traditional Hospital Based Mrsa Strains, Which Suggests Some Biologic Properties, E. G. , Virulence Factors Like Toxins, May Allow The Community Strains To Spread More Easily, Or Cause More Skin Disease. A Common Strain Named Usa300 0114 Has Caused Many Such Outbreaks In The United States. Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus Infections, E. G. , Bloodstream, Pneumonia, Bone Infections, Occur Most Frequently Among Persons In Hospitals And Healthcare Facilities, Including Nursing Homes, And Dialysis Centers. Those Who Acquire A Mrsa Infection Usually Have A Weakened Immune System, However, The Manifestation Of Mrsa Infections That Are Acquired By Otherwise Healthy Individuals, Who Have Not Been Recently Hospitalized, Or Had A Medical Procedure Such As Dialysis, Or Surgery, First Began To Emerged In The Mid To Late 1990's. These Infections In The Community Are Usually Manifested As Minor Skin Infectio (Photo By BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images)
Staphylococcus Aureus Sem, Resistant to Antibiotics Including Methicillin And Other More Common Antibiotics Such As Oxacillin, Penicillin And Amoxicillin, While 25 To 30 percent Of Population Is Colonized With Staph, Approximately 1 percent Is Colonized With Mrsa. (Photo By BSIP/UIG via Getty Images)
Methicillin Resistant Golden Staph Staphylococcus Aureus Mrsa, Scanning Electron Micrograph Colorized Sem, X 9560, The Line Represents Two Microns. These Bacteria Are Gram Positive Cocci And Facultative Anaerobes That Typically Gather In Clusters, As We See It Here. Golden Staph Is Responsible For Food Poisoning, Cutaneous Infections, Pneumonia, Toxic Shock Syndrome, . . . The Mrsa Is One Of The Most Frequent Multiresistant Bacterial Strains In Healthcare Facilities Hospital Acquired Infections. Golden Staph Staphylococcus Aureus > Staphylococcus > Staphylococcaceae > Bacillales > Firmicutes > Bacterium. This 2005 Scanning Electron Micrograph Sem Depicted Numerous Clumps Of Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus Bacteria, Commonly Referred To By The Acronym, Mrsa; Magnified 9560X. Recently Recognized Outbreaks, Or Clusters Of Mrsa In Community Settings Have Been Associated With Strains That Have Some Unique Microbiologic And Genetic Properties, Compared With The Traditional Hospital Based Mrsa Strains, Which Suggests Some Biologic Properties, E. G. , Virulence Factors Like Toxins, May Allow The Community Strains To Spread More Easily, Or Cause More Skin Disease. A Common Strain Named Usa300 0114 Has Caused Many Such Outbreaks In The United States. Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus Infections, E. G. , Bloodstream, Pneumonia, Bone Infections, Occur Most Frequently Among Persons In Hospitals And Healthcare Facilities, Including Nursing Homes, And Dialysis Centers. Those Who Acquire A Mrsa Infection Usually Have A Weakened Immune System, However, The Manifestation Of Mrsa Infections That Are Acquired By Otherwise Healthy Individuals, Who Have Not Been Recently Hospitalized, Or Had A Medical Procedure Such As Dialysis, Or Surgery, First Began To Emerged In The Mid To Late 1990's. These Infections In The Community Are Usually Manifested As Minor Skin Infectio (Photo By BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images)
Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus Mrsa Bacteria. This Scanning Electron Micrograph Depicts A Grouping Of Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus Mrsa Bacteria. These S. Aureus Bacteria Are Methicillin Resistant, And Are From One Of The First Isolates In The U. S. That Showed Increased Resistance To Vancomycin As Well. Note The Increase In Cell Wall Material Seen As Clumps On The Organisms’ Surface. (Photo By BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images)
Antibiotic drugs being tested to see how resistant they are to bacteria
BOSTON - APRIL 8: A scientist uses a 96-well plate to test different concentrations of nano particle treatment for antibiotic resistant bacteria inside the Egan Research Center at Northeastern University in Boston on April 8, 2014. The stronger the glow, the stronger the bacteria are. (Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
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