The Danger of Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria

We are surrounded by life forms that are constantly mutating and changing.  This is particularly true of bacteria.  Because they have such short life spans, they can evolve quickly to meet threats.  That is exactly what they have done to meet one of their biggest threats: the antibiotics we use to try and kill them.

E. coli bacteria engineered to eat carbon dioxide

Most of the people alive today never lived in a world without powerful antibiotics.  Penicillin was discovered in 1928 and its use ushered in what came to be known as the antibiotic revolution.  Before the development of antibiotics, people died in the millions from bacterial infections, such as pneumonia, smallpox, cholera, diphtheria, typhoid fever, plague, tuberculosis, typhus, syphilis.  Average life expectancy was only 47 years.  Penicillin and other powerful antibiotics changed all that but the bacteria fought back and we have helped them develop defenses to antibiotics.

When antibiotics are used to treat an infection, they sometimes do not kill all the bacteria.  Some may survive because they have evolved a defense against the antibiotic.  They have become resistant.  As they pass that resistance on to their offspring, the antibiotic to which they are resistant becomes less and less effective.

While this development of resistance is a natural process, we help it along by misusing antibiotics in humans and animals.  When we get sick or our children have a cough, we rush to the doctor’s office and get a prescription for an antibiotic.  The more often we or our children take an antibiotic, the faster resistance develops.

The problem is made even worse when people do not use all of the antibiotic ordered for them.  Stopping the antibiotic early almost guarantees that some of the bacteria will survive and may pass resistance to their offspring.

Hospitals are a prime breeding ground for antibiotic resistant bacteria.  Bacteria live on many surfaces in the hospital.  They are constantly exposed to low levels of antibiotics and may quickly develop resistance.  They infect people whose immune systems are already compromised and pass from patient to patient.

Livestock producers routinely administer antibiotics to their herds and flocks, not to treat infections, but to prevent them from occurring in the first place or to promote growth.  This common use of antibiotics accelerates the pace of developing resistance.

It has been stated that antibiotic resistance is one of the greatest dangers to global health we face today.  The day is not far off when doctors won’t have effective antibiotics to give us when we become ill with diseases we can successfully treat today.  We are facing a return to the bad old days before antibiotics.  We are facing a return to a litany of deadly diseases.

What can we do to at least slow this process?  Here are some suggestions from the World Health Organization:

  • Only use antibiotics when prescribed by a certified health professional.
  • Never demand antibiotics if your health worker says you don’t need them.
  • Always follow your health worker’s advice when using antibiotics.
  • Never share or use leftover antibiotics.
  • Prevent infections by regularly washing hands, preparing food hygienically, avoiding close contact with sick people, practicing safer sex, and keeping vaccinations up to date.
  • Prepare food hygienically, following the WHO Five Keys to Safer Food (keep clean, separate raw and cooked, cook thoroughly, keep food at safe temperatures, use safe water and raw materials) and choose foods that have been produced without the use of antibiotics for growth promotion or disease prevention in healthy animals.

Urge your elected officials to take antibiotic resistance seriously and to create legislation that slows its advance.  Do your part to put off the day when doctors may be powerless against antibiotic resistant infections.

Posted in antibiotic resistant bacteria, General Health, health, healthy living, Infection, Sepsis |