Antibiotic-Resistant Superbugs Scientists Worry Could End Humankind

How do you think humanity will end? An asteroid impact is a good candidate. As is a robot uprising. Perhaps climate change will sink our cities, cause mass famine, and lead to world wars? These are all very real, and very scary, possibilities. But there’s another threat living right alongside us most people don’t give much thought to: antibiotic-resistant superbugs.

You can’t see, smell, or feel them, but they’re here. The World Health Organization has been keeping tabs on the rise of these super bacteria, too, and published a list that “pose the greatest threat to human health.” Here are the 11 superbugs that have scientists at the WHO sweating.

1. Acinetobacter baumannii

Acinetobacter baumannii is becoming more resistant to antibiotics.

Members of the military sometimes bring Acinetobacter baumannii back to the States. |

This is one of the bugs that has scientists sweating with concern. Acinetobacter baumannii is typically associated with hospital room infections and is carbapenem (antibiotic) resistant. It’s begun to spread, in part, by military service members returning from certain combat zones. Specifically, soldiers returning home from Iraq to the States.

2. Pseudomonas aeruginosa

Pseudomonas aeruginosa is critical on the list of bacteria becoming dangerously resistant to antibiotics.

Patients can contract Pseudomonas aeruginosa while in the hospital due to a weakened immune system. |

Another carbapenem-resistant strain of bacteria, Pseudomonas aeruginosa can cause disease in not only humans, but also plants and animals. It thrives in numerous environments and is most likely to be contracted in a hospital environment by people with weak immune systems. This particular superbug kills around 400 people per year, the CDC reports, a small percentage of the 51,000 U.S. cases diagnosed annually.

3. Enterobacteriaceae

Antibiotics meant to treat infections caused by Enterobacteriaceae are becoming less effective.

Enterobacteriaceae can lead to fever, urinary tract infections, and pneumonia. |

Enterobacteriaceae is the third and final bacteria listed as critical on the WHO’s report. Critical, in that the situation surrounding the bug’s antibiotic resistance is very concerning. Again, Enterobacteriaceae is carbapenem-resistant, and also ESBL-producing, which can cause further complications and become harder to treat.

The following six superbugs are classified as high on the priority list by the WHO.

4. Enterococcus faecium

Enterococcus infections are becoming more difficult to treat with antibiotics.

Enterococcus can lead to infections in your gut. |

The Enterococcus faecium bacteria has become resistant to vancomycin, an antibiotic used to treat infections in the intestines. Therefore, as you may have guessed, this particular bacteria tends to cause infections in your gut — though not exclusively. Enterococcus is also starting to show resistance to other common treatments, like penicillin, making fighting infections even more difficult for doctors.

5. Staphylococcus aureus

Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, in a petri dish.

Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, can be deadly. | CDC Public Health Image Library

You may be more familiar with Staphylococcus aureus than you realize. It also goes by another name: staph infection. Or MRSA, being that it’s methicillin-resistant and vancomycin-resistant. It’s a nasty bug and can cause all kinds of infections that are, in some cases, deadly. The scary part is that it’s learning to survive the antibiotics developed to fight it, and getting harder and harder to kill as it evolves.

6. Helicobacter pylori

Antibiotic resistant Helicobacter pylori can cause infections in the digestive tract.

Helicobacter pylori can cause digestive problems. |

Helicobacter pylori are clarithromycin-resistant, WebMD reports, and as a result, have earned a spot on the WHO’s list. As you may have gathered from the photo above, it’s a bacteria that’s typically found in the stomach and intestines and causes complications in the digestive system. The most common issue people experience is ulcers, and though the majority of people actually carry the bacteria, only a small subset experience problems.

7. Campylobacter spp.

Undercooked meat is a common way to contract this bacteria.

Food-borne illness is often how this bacteria is transmitted. | China Photos/Getty Images

Campylobacter literally translates to “curved bacteria.” And this particular curved bacteria is one of the most common causes of digestive problems. It’s not usually dangerous, but can be fatal when contracted by children or those with weak immune systems. It’s fluoroquinolone-resistant, and is often transmitted as a food-borne illness — the bacteria exists in animals, and eating undercooked meat can lead to transmission.

8. Salmonellae

Salmonellae is becoming more resistant to antibiotics.

Cook your eggs, and your bacon, to avoid a Salmonellae infection. |

It sounds like salmonella. The photo above is hinting at salmonella. It must be salmonella. Indeed it is salmonella, a fluoroquinolone-resistant bacteria that, like Campylobacter, is transmitted as a food-borne illness. Salmonella can result in a nasty few days of recovery, but it’s typically treatable. The problem is that our drugs are becoming less and less effective — so don’t be afraid to burn your eggs.

9. Neisseria gonorrhoeae

Neisseria gonorrhoeae is becoming more resistant to antibiotics.

Gonorrhea could become resistant to modern drugs. |

It’s cephalosporin-resistant, fluoroquinolone-resistant, and sexually transmitted. And yes, it’s one of the most well-known STDs out there: gonorrhea. Antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea, to be exact. Obviously, the evolution of Neisseria gonorrhoeae to become resistant to modern drugs and medicines is dangerous and making treatment more difficult. That’s why the WHO report lists it as a high priority for new antibiotics.

10. Streptococcus pneumoniae

Streptococcus pneumoniae causes pneumonia, which, for now, can be treated with antibiotics.

Pneumonia is treatable with modern drugs — for now. |

The final three superbugs, starting with Streptococcus pneumoniae, are listed as priority three, or medium, on the WHO’s list. It’s, penicillin-non-susceptible, and is the bacteria that causes pneumonia — the illness buried in the bacterium’s name. It also causes many other infections and problems but is entirely treatable with modern drugs. For the time being.

11. Haemophilus influenzae

A child infected with Haemophilus influenzae.

Haemophilus influenzae causes illnesses in young children. | CDC Public Health Image Library

Haemophilus influenzae is an ampicillin-resistant bacteria that, despite the name, doesn’t cause the flu. Instead, it’s most commonly associated with illnesses in young children. There are actually six different strains, with the most famous being type b, which causes Hib. There is a vaccine available, which has helped in preventing tens of thousands of cases every year.


Meg Dowell also contributed to this story