How teachers can help fight superbugs

Experts say antimicrobial resistant superbugs pose a huge global health problem, and it’s made worse by antimicrobial handwash. Teachers can play a role in tackling the problem.

A team of Monash scientists and educators offer their insights.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), antimicrobial resistance threatens the core of modern medicine in responding to infectious diseases. It is so serious; they have declared it as one of the top 10 public health threats facing humanity.

How does this happen, and what does 99.9% germ-free hand wash have to do with it?

How microbes become superbugs

Bugs and germs — aka microbes like bacteria, fungi, parasites and viruses — are a part of our everyday lives. They are on us, around us and inside us. We all have our own unique collection of trillions of them, called our microbiome. They keep us well and sometimes make us sick. Most of the time, this happens in a pretty balanced way.

We have medicines to treat diseases caused by some microbes. But microbes are changing and no longer respond to medicines. These ‘superbugs’ make infections harder to treat. It increases the risk of disease spread, severe illness and death.

This is called Antimicrobial Resistance or AMR.

It’s the microbes that become resistant to the drugs, not our bodies. And when these superbugs infect us, the diseases they cause are harder — if not impossible — to treat.

Antibiotic resistance — where bacteria (only) change in response to the use of these medicines making bacterial infections harder to treat — is a part of AMR, but it’s not the whole story.

How to Explain Antimicrobial Resistance to Your Friends and Family (With Infographics)

Bottle of antibacterial hand sanitizer

Antimicrobial resistance is a slow-moving tsunami

The overuse and misuse of antibiotics and other antimicrobial medicines are causing what WHO Director General Margaret Chan called “a slow-moving tsunami”.

By 2050, ten million people are predicted to die every year because of AMR. In developing countries poor sanitation, inadequate infection control and a lack of clear water exacerbate the issue. Even non-antibiotic pharmaceuticals are linked to antibiotic resistance.

Overuse and misuse of antibacterials includes chemicals in antimicrobial soaps.

Every time we wash our hands with these kinds of soaps, we breed superbugs. If we cut our hand in the garden, and those bugs get into our bloodstream, the infection can be untreatable.

Feeding the superbugs: Why we need to wash our hands of antibacterial soaps

Prevent antimicrobial resistance by using soap and water to wash your hands

COVID-19 has brought good handwashing messages into our classrooms, and Australian students will be well aware of the importance of washing our hands to prevent disease.

But we also need to wash our hands in such a way that prevents antimicrobial resistance.

Here are four simple tips:

  1. Wash your hands with soap and water often, and for at least 20 seconds.
  2. Use at least 60% alcohol hand sanitiser if soap is unavailable.
  3. Avoid ongoing and overuse of antimicrobial and antibacterial soaps.
  4. Clean surfaces and objects with detergents.

This kind of handwashing is endorsed by the Australian government and applies to workplaces and schools.

Diagram on how to prevent antimicrobial resistance

Show Me the Science – When & How to Use Hand Sanitizer in Community Settings

How teachers and educators can spread the word about antimicrobial resistance

As teachers, we can educate our students about microbes, the spread of diseases and ways to prevent transmission. We can also change our handwashing messages.

From kindergarten to Year 12, there are direct content links to both the Australian Curriculum in Science and Health and Physical Education (HPE). Conversations such as this could also address and develop a number of the General Capabilities and the sustainability cross-curriculum priority.

Using simple resources like the video below can introduce key concepts and a backward map to your students.

Ideas for teachers

  • Map content in Science to HPE, or vice versa.
  • Make deliberately planning choices to develop health and scientific literacy.
  • Draw on popular culture, for example, films like Disney's A Bug’s Life, to engage students with more complex concepts.
  • Read Dr. Dog by Babette Cole with your younger readers - it is educational and fun.
  • Promoting documentaries like the Rise of the Superbugs to senior school students encourages critical and creative thinking.
  • Ask students to identify places where they see everyday use of antimicrobial and antibacterial soaps and hand sanitisers. Develop some conversation starters to challenge thinking about the use of these and soap alternatives.
  • Engage students in developing health promotion programs that share the message with their peers and families. Here are examples of Coronavirus resources developed by VicHealth.

The wash-up

Our uniquely quirky microbiome is here to stay. How we nurture it and handle what it dishes up to us from day to day is associated with an array of personal health choices. However, when a personal health choice becomes a public health issue, as is the case with superbugs and AMR, we have to think global.

Scientists are telling us that AMR is an imminent future threat to our health. We need to change the way we wash our hands, stop feeding the superbugs and start washing with plain old-fashioned soap.

Many thanks to Kerry Dunse, Professor Amanda Berry and Associate Professor Deana Leahy for editorial advice.