3 Threat of the Superbug

“This is almost as big, if not bigger than, climate change.”

– Brett Finlay, O.C., O.B.C., FRSC, FCAHS

With all the focus on climate change, another worldwide threat has largely slipped under the radar: the superbug. Given its name by the media, the superbug actually refers to any bacterial pathogens that are resistant to antibiotics. By 2050, superbugs are expected to kill close to 400,000 people in Canada, costing the Canadian government a staggering $400 billion in gross domestic product (Council of Canadian Academies, 2019). Researchers and engineers across Canada have been quietly working to address this concern – with a recent breakthrough coming out of McMaster University in Ontario. A team of researchers there has created a self-cleaning surface able to resist all forms of bacteria, including superbugs (Imani et al., 2019). The new plastic surface is a transparent wrap with microscopic wrinkles that molds around various surfaces such as tables, door handles, railings, and so on. The idea of the wrap was born out of nature and mimics the water-repellant lotus leaf. It is imperative now that Canada’s industries, particularly the hospitality and medical industries, invest in this new life-saving technology to prevent deadly epidemics.

The hospitality industry is rampant with germs and in dire need of this new bacterial-resistant wrap. Restaurant surfaces are particularly susceptible to germs and are often a breeding ground for harmful bacteria which manifest in terms of flus, colds, and foodborne illnesses in both staff and customers. Commonly found bacteria in restaurants include – but are not limited to – salmonella, listeria, and e-coli. In fact, food-borne diseases are estimated at around 4 million cases a year in Canada (Government of Canada, 2019). To help prevent outbreaks, this new plastic surface should be used, at minimum, in food preparation areas and on menus themselves. But restaurants are not the only place of infection. Hotel rooms also harbour deadly pathogens. CBC’s Marketplace (CBC News, 2012) conducted a study of 54 hotel rooms from six different hotel chains in Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal.  Findings revealed that every hotel room that was tested was home to at least one type of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The main carriers included remote controls, comforters, bathroom sinks, and telephones. Of course, the airline industry is not immune to this concern either. A 2015 study conducted by Travelmath in the United States revealed that the most contagious place on an airplane was the tray table and the water fountain button at the airport. If these objects in hotels, airplanes, and airports were covered with this new material, infection rates would surely decrease.

The medical industry is also particularly prone to bacterial outbreaks and thus would find the new bacterial-resistant surface highly beneficial. According to the Vancouver Sun (Shore, 2016), more than 20,000 patients in hospitals across Canada are infected by a superbug every year – of which around 8,000 die (Hospital News, 2019). Drug-resistant bacteria is found in high touch areas in hospitals, such as hospital sinks and doorknobs. One study found that patients who had superbugs on their skin most likely contracted them from the items in their hospital room – as 1/5 of the objects in their rooms tested positive for similar superbugs (Mody et al., 2019).  This may explain why antibiotic-resistant bacteria is found on so many patients in hospitals (Preidt, 2019). Nursing homes are also a breeding ground for superbugs. One recent study in the United States revealed 65% of residents at a nursing home carried drug-resistant bacteria (McKinnell et al., 2019). By covering the high touch areas and objects in hospital rooms and nursing homes with this new surface material, the government should see a decline in the number of patients carrying deadly pathogens and the number of deaths attributed to them. This makes for a strong argument for investment.

To conclude, at least two major industries currently harbour antibiotic-resistant organisms: the hospitality industry and the medical industry. People in contact with high touch surfaces in these industries are prone to carrying these superbugs and often spread them unknowingly throughout the greater community. By investing in this new bacteria-resistant wrap, the industries would be doing communities across Canada a great service. Not only would it save the government a significant amount of money, but – more importantly – it would save human lives. It is only a matter of time until the superbug threat supersedes climate change. This new invention helps prepare the world for what is to come and so needs further investment. In the words of Benjamin Franklin: By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail. We do not want to fail on this one.



CBC News. (2012). Superbug bacteria found in tested hotel rooms. Retrieved December 17, 2019 from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/superbug-bacteria-found-in-tested-hotel-rooms-1.1219281

Council of Canadian Academies. (2019). When antibiotics fail: The expert panel on the socio-economic impacts of anti-microbial resistance in Canada. Retrieved December 17, 2019 from https://cca-reports.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/One-Pager_EN.pdf

Government of Canada. (2019). Causes of food poisoning. Retrieved December 17, 2019 from https://inspection.gc.ca/food/information-for-consumers/fact-sheets-and-infographics/food-poisoning/eng/1331151916451/1331152055552

Hospital News. (2019). The war against superbugs. Retrieved December 17, 2019 from https://hospitalnews.com/war-superbugs/

Imani, S., Maclachlan, R., Rachwalski, K., Chan, Y., Lee, B., McInnes, M., Grandfield, K., Brown, E., Didar, T., & Soleymani, L. (2019). Flexible hierarchical wraps repel drug-resistant gram-negative and positive bacteria. ACS Nano. DOI: 10.1021/ac

McKinnell, J., Singh, R., Miller, L., Kleinman, K., Gussin, G., He, J., Saavedra, R., Dutciuc, T., Estevez, M., Chang, J., Heim, L., Yamaguchi, S., Custodio, H., Gohil, S., Park, S., Tam, S., Robinson, P., Tioa, T., Nguyen, J., Evans, K., Bittencourt, C., Lee, B., Mueller, L., Bartsch, S., Jernigan, J., Slayton, R., Stone, N., Zahn, M., Mor, V., McConeghy, K., Baier, R., Janssen, L., O’Donnell, K., Weinstein, R., Hayden, M., Coady, M., Bhattarai, M., Peterson, E., & Huang, S. (2019). The SHIELD Orange County project: Multi-drug resistant organism prevalence in 21 nursing homes and long-term acute care facilities in Southern California. Clinical Infectious Disease, 69(9), 1566-1573. DOI: 10.1093/cid/ciz119.

Mody, L., Washer, L., Kaye, K., Gibson, K., Saint, S., Reyes, K., Cassone, M., Mantey, J., Cao, J., Altamimi, S., Perri, M., Sax, H., Chopra, V., & Zervos, M. (2019). Multi-drug resistant organisms in hospitals: What is on patient hands and in their rooms. Clinical Infectious Disease, 69(11), 1837-1844. DOI: 10.1093/cid/ciz092

Preidt, R. (2019). Superbugs hang out on hospital patients. Retrieved December 17, 2019 from https://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/news/20190419/superbugs-hang-out-on-hospital-patients#1

Shore, R. (2016). Five things: A few facts about superbugs in Canada. Retrieved December 17, 2019 from https://vancouversun.com/news/local-news/five-things-a-few-facts-about-superbugs-in-canada

Travelmath. (2015). Airline hygiene exposed. Retrieved December 17, 2019 from https://www.travelmath.com/feature/airline-hygiene-exposed/


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