How to understand “antibiotic resistance”.

Belgium is working on a virus to combat superbugs

Belgium is working on a virus to combat superbugs

According to the WHO, we need to understand antibiotic resistance as it is one of the most serious threats to global health.

Antibiotic resistance existed long before we started using antibiotics with a frequency and enthusiasm which is now bordering on addiction with people taking them at the first sign of ailment

The same genes that modern bacteria are carrying today to protect themselves against these medicines have been found in ancient bacteria frozen in the Arctic soil for more than 30,000 years.

But, since we started using antibiotics to treat each of our pathogenic threats (real or imagined), we have created the perfect conditions to make resistant genes that are attractive for each of those bacteria.

Even the father of antibiotics, Alexander Fleming (who discovered penicillin) warned about the risks of spreading antibiotic resistance in 1946, arguing that public demand would cause them to be overused.

“The unwitting person who tinkers with penicillin treatment is morally responsible for the death of the man who finally succumbs to infection with the penicillin-resistant organism,” he told New York Times readers. “I hope the evil can be prevented.”

Just how bad is the situation?

Remember tuberculosis? Probably not; the closest encounter most of us had with this horrible infection was when we watched the elegant death of Satine (played by Nicole Kidman) in the film “Moulin Rouge”.

However, there has been an alarming rise in antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis, known as “Ebola with wings”, in countries such as India, China, Papua New Guinea and Russia.

Thanks to the antibiotics isoniazid and rifampicin, Mycobacterium tuberculosis has largely disappeared from rich Western countries (although it never did from the rest of the world).

But now it is back. And it is worse than ever!

TB is an airborne contagion and it is easily transmitted through coughing or sneezing. The chances of surviving it, even with the best medical treatment, are around 50 per cent.

In the United States, at least two million people acquire an antibiotic resistance bacterial infection each year. And more than 20,000 of them die from these infections.

Hospitals are seeing bacteria such as E-coli, a common cause of gastroenteritis, and Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a cause of sepsis and other potentially fatal and unpleasant illnesses, which are antibiotic-resistant.

Still not worried? Here’s another fact: many sexually transmitted infections are caused by bacteria. For example, syphilis, gonorrhoea or Chlamydia, What happens if you catch one of these bacteria’s that are antibiotic resistance? Gonorrhoea is already starting to become resistant to some antibiotics.

Why can’t we invent more antibiotics?

Seems simple enough, doesn’t it. Well, to put it simply, antibiotics just don’t make the pharmaceutical industry enough money, so they are focusing their attention on other markets, like cancer.  A course of antibiotic treatment might cost around US$1,000, but chemotherapy to treat cancer can generate tens of thousands of dollars.

According to the Infectious Diseases Study Association of America (IDSA), “every single antibiotic we use today is derived from an antibiotic that was developed before 1984”.

How can we solve this problem?

Firstly, stop taking antibiotics unnecessarily. They don’t solve all problems. In fact, taking them every time we have the sniffles causes us more harm than good. Not all infections need antibiotics, infections like ear and UTI’s do not always need them.

Also, infections caused by viruses do not get cured by antibiotics, so if you have the flu, a simple paracetamol and a hot drink will do much more than any other tablet. Antibiotic resistance is a problem you can halt!

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