Antibiotic Resistance: A Global Health Problem
Last year Dr. Margaret Chan, former Director-General of the World Health Organization, appeared before the United Nations to warn about the potential dangers of antibiotic resistance. We may soon reach a point where minor infections can once again kill. Common practices like organ transplantation and chemotherapy may become difficult or even too dangerous to perform.
Some interpreted her statement as alarmist. In reality, she’s not far off the mark.
Antibiotic resistance is becoming a real problem in the world of modern medicine. Drugs used to treat bacterial infections aren’t working as well as they used to. If something isn’t changed, we may find ourselves in a world where a minor cut could be life-threatening.
The bad news is that it’s already a widespread and complicated problem. The good news is that the world is well aware of the issue, and several organizations are working to prevent this worst-case scenario.
Bacterial vs. Viral Infections
By their most basic definitions, bacteria cause bacterial infections while viruses cause viral infections. But there’s a lot more to it than that.
Bacteria are single-celled and relatively complex creatures that reproduce on their own. We have fossilized records proving that they have been on the earth for at least 3.5 billion years, which comes as no surprise when taking into account their adaptability. They can survive just about any environment from extreme heat to extreme cold and even radioactivity. Less than 1% are harmful to humans, as the majority are helpful in fighting cancer cells, digesting food, and providing nutrients we need to survive.
Viruses are much, much smaller. Even the largest is tinier than the smallest known bacteria. They’re not actually living creatures and therefore cannot be killed – only deactivated. A virus must have a host to survive and can only reproduce by attaching to host cells. They reprogram the living cells of their host to create more viruses. In contrast to bacteria, most can make us sick and attach to very specific cells depending on their makeup.
How Antibiotics Work
Because they are so different, medical professionals treat bacteria and viruses with different medications. Vaccines are essentially small doses of the virus intended to prevent full-blown viral infections. Though treatment has proved tricky over the years, preventative measures have greatly diminished the presence of viral diseases like hepatitis, HPV, and chickenpox.
Antibiotics differ greatly in their approach. Rather than prevention, their goal is treatment. It started with the accidental discovery of penicillin in the late 1920s and has skyrocketed from there. Penicillin led to cures for many infections that were once extremely contagious and deadly.
Antibiotic medications work by singling out bacterial cells and leaving healthy human cells alone. This is possible because bacteria, while similar in their makeup to human cells in some ways, are also quite dissimilar. For one, bacteria have cell walls, whereas human cells do not. The structures of their cell membranes are different, as are their methods for copying DNA and building proteins.
Many antibiotics work by preventing bacteria from building their cell walls. Without it, the microorganisms cannot survive or reproduce, and the infection eventually dies out. Other medications target bacterial cells to dissolve their membrane or break up the process of protein building and DNA copying.
Overuse and Resistance
Antibiotics have proven to be effective treatments for bacteria. On the surface, it seems like a good idea to take them whenever a person gets sick. However, using antibiotics so often leads to major downsides – especially when it’s not known for certain that the infection is bacterial in nature.
Because of their adaptability, overuse has led to many harmful bacteria mutating their DNA and developing a resistance to the medicines meant to kill them. Some medications are not nearly as effective as they were in the past, and others have even quit working altogether. This presents challenges for doctors in finding solutions that work for their patients.
Additionally, antibiotics don’t discriminate between harmful and friendly bacteria. When a person ingests the medication, it enters the bloodstream and makes its way through the body, targeting every bacterium it comes across. It kills the resident helpful bacteria in addition to the ones making the person sick. If this happens too often, the patient’s health will ultimately begin to suffer.
Harmful bacteria are opportunistic and, if given the chance, can invade those areas where friendly bacteria are dying off from overuse of medication. Additionally, an unbalanced system provides the perfect environment for the unhealthy microbes to flourish. Another potential hazard is the chance of normally friendly bacteria multiplying too fast, which can cause them to become harmful to the patient’s health.
Antibiotic Resistance Prevention
In 2015, a study published by Nature found that the world’s antibiotic consumption jumped by 30% between 2000 and 2010. Some strains of severe – and previously treatable – infections are becoming resistant to medications. Additionally, the number of people carrying these strains is rising. Tuberculosis, E.coli, HIV, UTIs, malaria, staph, and pneumonia are just some of the maladies that doctors now struggle to treat because of their mutated resistance to antibiotics.
Some might ask why we don’t simply develop new antibiotics to knock out the ones that have become resistant. A simple idea in theory, but the process is extremely expensive and potential profit is drastically low. Additionally, no legal outlets control how a new product would be used. This means that the bacteria would quickly become resistant to the new product as well.
So what can we do to slow the progress of antibiotic resistance? On a global scale, many countries are accepting practices to reduce cases of resistance. Most countries are now working towards training, education, and prevention aimed to slow resistance worldwide.
At the individual level, we simply need to cut down on our use of the medication. They won’t work for viral infections, so, unless the doctor diagnoses the cause as bacterial they shouldn’t be taken. Use them only when necessary, not every time you feel sick. Besides being beneficial for the individual, it will cut down on the contribution to the global antibiotic resistance problem.