Over the past week, news media have spoken often about the threat of the superbugs: antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Just days ago, the UK’s Chief medical officer called this new wave of bacteria a “catastrophic threat,” urging governments and organizations around the world to be prepared. And last week, the CDC had a similar message, specifically for hospitals who saw a 400% increase in superbugs infections.
Superbugs are newly evolved forms of bacterial strains that have developed an immunity to antibiotics. While resistant bugs have always existed, the over-use of antibiotics over the past few decades has put their evolution into hyper-drive. As we use antibiotics to kill bacteria who are not resistant, the resistant bacteria are left with less competition and more resources with which to thrive.
The current wave of superbugs has been a long time coming. However, a severe lack of research in the area of new antibiotics has left us facing the real possibility that we will no longer have a defense against bacterial infections. And a lack of funding is not the problem.
Developing antibiotics takes decades of research: research into new compounds, organisms, plants, chemicals, etc. Unlike most man-made items, antibiotics cannot be easily created and, for the most part, need to be discovered in nature in order to be isolated and replicated for public production. However, little research has been done on new antibiotics since 1987.
This crisis has been brought on by a few factors:
- Over-use of antibiotics to treat minor illnesses
- Continuous environmental exposure in hospitals and long-care facilities
- Unnecessary use of antibiotics in healthy farm animals for meat production
But luckily, even the average person can do a lot to slow and stop superbugs.
The first contributing factor is also the most easily reduced. Patients expect doctors to write prescriptions, but for many illnesses, such as colds, no treatment exists. Taking antibiotics for viral infections does nothing but kill out the good bacteria in your system. While doctors understand that antibiotics do not help in every situation, patients can often become demanding, especially when it is their child’s health at stake. When you or your child becomes sick, do not ask the doctor for a prescription unless your health care provider feels that antibiotics are the only course of treatment. In addition, make sure to take the exact dosage specified and to finish the entire course of drugs.
The second factor, exposure in hospitals, is less easily remedied by the average person. This exposure comes from the fact that doctors frequently treat hospital patients with antibiotics. These antibiotics can stick around in the environment, meaning that people near these patients could be constantly exposed to low levels of antibiotics. The CDC has been urging hospitals and long-care facilities to reduce the amount of antibiotics they use. If you work in health care, talk to your administrators about changing hospital policy on antibiotics, and make sure to maintain proper hygiene habits in order to reduce the spread of any antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
The third factor may also be one of the most important when it comes to protecting public health. Nearly 70% of all antibiotics used in the U.S. are used in healthy farm animals. Rather than being used to treat disease, the antibiotics help farmers fatten up animals for consumption. This has already led to antibiotic-resistant strains being introduced into our systems through our food. While it may seem hard for the average person to change the meat industry, by working together, we can reduce the amount of antibiotics used. When buying meat, look for certified organic meat that has not been raised with antibiotics. Urge local restaurants to take similar action (McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Popeye’s have already taken a stand against chicken raised on antibiotics).
Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming
Centers for Disease Control: Drug Resistance
Guardian Editorial: How to avoid the antibiotic apocalypse? Look at the Ground.