Rise of the Superbugs

The deadly misuse of antibiotics threatening our world

Rise of the Superbugs The nightmare is here. Rampant use of antibiotics coupled with an explosion in global travel has led to superbugs spreading worldwide. Join us as we step into the lab with leading experts and listen to shocking stories of the health implications. Let's face up to the horror of antibiotic resistance before it's too late, as once a superbug gets out, there may be no stopping it....An authoritative, timely film, on an issue we ignore at our peril.

Joel Beclu got a superbug following routine treatment for prostate cancer. "I lost touch with reality because of the painkillers," he recalls. Joel's life was only saved by rare antibiotics imported from overseas. With the discovery of antibiotics in the 1930s and 40s we became superhuman - able to survive chemotherapy, transplant surgery and intensive care. The loss of effective antibiotics would jeopardise all of that, since as Molecular Bioscientist Professor Matt Cooper tells us, "infectious disease kills more people than cancer."

Without antibiotics surgery used to be the last line of defence against infection. Now the use of radical surgery is on the rise again. Nick Komilionis picked up a superbug in his home country of Greece. In the end all drugs failed him and his life was only saved by having his bowel surgically removed. "We had to take a pre-1940s approach to cure him," admits his doctor Professor Lindsay Grayson.

David Ricci was volunteering in a Calcutta slum when he was hit by a train, his leg badly mangled. He picked up superbug New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase, or NDM1. Somehow David finally made it home to America where a toxic drug killed off the infection just before it killed him. "They had to pull me off right before most of my organs were unretainable." Now he walks on a prosthetic leg, treating every day as though it was his last.

"Every time we take an antibiotic we're giving the bug a chance to become a superbug" explains Matt Cooper. Countries like India are the "perfect petri-dish" for superbugs. Antibiotics are manufactured cheaply here and available over the counter. Waterways and even the soil are contaminated by waste from antibiotic manufacture. India's superbug researchers have been shunned for threatening a multi-billion dollar medical tourism industry. Dr Abdul Ghafur is one of the few Indian doctors prepared to speak out: "We can't wait and watch. We need urgent wartime measures to ration antibiotics."

TB was once thought a disease of the past. Australia used to hold TB originating in Papua New Guinea at bay by isolating it in island hospitals. Cathrina is currently Australia's only known case of Extensively Drug Resistant Tuberculosis or XDR-TB. She made her way here from PNG after running out of TB drugs. Already five months in isolation in negative air pressure, her treatment could cost up to a million dollars. And she may not even survive. In remote PNG villages like Sigabaduru we track down other TB sufferers who have run out of drugs, just as Cathrina did. They are cases of superbug TB waiting to happen.

Sadly antibiotics are not cost-effective for drug companies. Those prepared to research new antibiotics are dwindling. And once a superbug gets out into the community, there may be no stopping it. As Thoracic Specialist Dr Stephen Vincent warns: "If it gets into the population, that's the disaster."

An authoritative, timely film, on an issue we ignore at our peril.


The Producers

Geoff Thompson was appointed the ABC’s Indonesia Correspondent in April 2006 and is based in Jakarta. It is his third foreign posting for the ABC. In addition to his work in South Asia, he also played a key role in Middle East coverage, travelling throughout Kuwait and Iraq with US forces during the war in Iraq in early 2003. Geoff’s reporting of the American war against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces in Afghanistan won him an Australian Logie award for Australia's Most Outstanding News Reporter.

The ABC's Afghanistan coverage also won the 2002 Logie for Most Outstanding News Coverage. In 2003, Geoff's embedded reporting from Iraq with cameraman Michael Cox was also recognised with another Logie award for Most Outstanding News Coverage. He is also the winner of three Walkley Awards, two for ABC Radio and the other for ABC TV.

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