Antibiotic resistance is on the rise with no sign of stopping, but just how much should we be concerned? Aela O’Flynn investigates.
TB, smallpox, syphilis, polio, the very names of these diseases strike dread into those with long memories. These were once among the most deadly infections on the planet, killing millions, including thousands of Irish in the years between the Great Famine and the 1950s. In Dublin alone, TB which used to be referred to as “consumption,” was the AIDS of its day, at one time killing more than 10,000 people a year. Half of these fatalities were children. Thanks to vaccination and antibiotics, modern medicine began winning the war against disease, eradicating smallpox and successfully controlling many of the other diseases. So are we safe now?
Every minute of every day, the bacteria all around us are planning a revolt. Antibiotic resistance is now deemed “one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development” by the World Health Organisation. The bacterial battle plan is simple. When someone contracts a bacterial infection and is treated with antibiotics, the drugs kill most of the bacteria, leaving a small number of drug-resistant bacteria behind. These bacteria grasp control of the infected territory and multiply. The antibiotic being used to treat them is ineffective against these survivors, so given a weakened immune system or outdated antibiotic treatment, they are enabled to multiply.
“Antibiotic resistance is now deemed “one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development” by the World Health Organisation.”
Antibiotic resistance has reached crisis point. It is estimated that 25,000 people die as a result of it every year in the EU alone. We could blame the bacteria, but the truth is that we put ourselves in this position. We have become far too reliant on drugs that cannot keep up. Antibiotics have been over-prescribed, poorly dosed, and incorrectly used by doctors and patients alike. They are also extensively used in agriculture, sometimes to treat infections, but more often as a supplement to promote food growth in animals. Even now that the dangers are clear, we continue to abuse antibiotics as if nothing has changed.
You may be wondering how this will affect you. You don’t have tuberculosis and you have no plans to catch typhoid anytime soon. Unfortunately, these infections are only the first line of attack. As the bacterial resistance gathers strength, all the advancements of modern medicine are threatened. The risk of infection from caesarean sections, organ transplants, and chemotherapy are increasing at an alarming rate due to our inability to produce new antibiotics to fight them. For all of our research and development, we’re being beaten by bugs.
“As the bacterial resistance gathers strength, all the advancements of modern medicine are threatened.”
The number of new antibiotics being approved by the FDA has been decreasing steadily since the 1980s, despite the surge in antibiotic resistance over the same time period. This ultimately comes down to cost. Developing new drugs requires huge investment, which only pharmaceutical companies may be able to afford. Unfortunately for us, the figures simply do not add up for these companies. Why should they develop an antibiotic when other drugs, such as those for chronic diseases, will yield a much healthier profit? The burden is left upon smaller pharmaceutical and biotechnology firms to develop antibiotics slowly and at great cost, only to be acquired by the giants of the market. This simply is not sufficient if we want to stay ahead of the resistant bacteria.
As if the scene wasn’t bleak enough, resistance has bred yet another beast: the Superbug. This is the broad term for any strain of bacteria that has become resistant to antibiotics, but some are definitely causing more concern than others. The most commonly cited of these is MRSA, an infection which is resistant to almost all of our normal antibiotics, as well as a whole host of other drugs. It is a clever bug, attacking the most vulnerable, often those in hospital or those living in very close and unsanitary quarters. The longer this infection takes to treat, the further it spreads throughout the body. It can even become life-threatening. We are unlikely to encounter the most resistant forms of MRSA in our daily lives, but it announces the arrival of bacteria that are evolving to beat almost anything that we have to throw at them.
The time has come to defend ourselves against the advancing bacterial army. We need not only to invest in laboratory experimentation to combat antibiotic resistance, but this research must be shared among labs worldwide in order to expedite our search for solutions. On a day-to-day basis, we need to protect ourselves from becoming infected in the first place. We have become complacent about the spread of germs, a complacency which we can no longer afford.
It is time that we become responsible with our use of antibiotics. They should be used only when necessary, and the full prescribed course must be completed. Unfortunately, all of these “solutions” are only temporary. There will come a time, in the not so distant future, when antibiotics simply will not be able protect us from bacterial superbugs. When that time comes, we can only hope that we have found an alternative. The clock is ticking.