Antibiotic resistance: A global threat

The World Health Organization last month released a detailed report warning about antimicrobial resistance as a global trend. Even the press release is scary.

The modern antibiotic era began in the 1930s with the development of the first sulfa drugs, which inhibited bacterial growth, and blossomed when penicillin, which killed bacteria, began to be purified and widely used in the years after World War II. New antibiotics developed; death rates from bacterial infections fell dramatically. Life expectancy increased thanks to these wonder drugs, to vaccines, and to improvements in sanitation. In 1900, the greatest killers of Americans were infectious diseases: pneumonia, tuberculosis, and diarhea and enteritis. Today, as most people know, heart disease and cancer are the leading causes of death.


But now we are faced with the threat that infectious disease deaths will climb as microorganisms evolve to resist antimicrobial drugs. Already, tuberculosis, a bacterial disease that is the second-biggest killer on the planet, has evolved resistance to many antibiotic drugs. Multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, (MDR-TB) is becoming widespread. Preventing the therapeutic arsenal used against TB and other deadly infections from being neutralized requires a global effort. This means, among other things: surveillance; the reduced use of antimicrobials in food-producing animals; the development of new therapeutic tools; and efforts by health-care providers and institutions to reduce unnecessary use of these medications.

There have already been antibiotic-resistant outbreaks of foodborne illnesses. And Delaware recently reported what is believed to be the case in the United States of NDM-producing carbapenem-resistant (CR) Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a multidrug-resistant bacterial organism that was first seen in Serbia. This is an established problem that must be addressed. We must use our antimicrobial drugs with care. 

Preserving these vital medical tools isn’t just a job for governments, food producers, and health-care providers. We all have to do our part. What can we do? Here is what the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asks of us:

  • Ask health-care providers whether tests will be done to make sure the right antibiotic is prescribed.
  • Take antibiotics exactly as the doctor prescribes. Do not skip doses. Complete the prescribed course of treatment; feeling better does not mean that the bacteria are dead yet!
  • Only take antibiotics prescribed for you; do not share or use leftovers. Antibiotics treat specific types of infections. Taking the wrong medicine may delay correct treatment and allow bacteria to multiply.
  • Do not save antibiotics for the next illness. Discard any leftover medication once the prescribed course of treatment is completed.
  • Do not insist on antibiotics when your doctor thinks you don’t need them. Remember: antibiotics have side effects.
  • Prevent infections by practicing good hand hygiene (watch!)and getting recommended vaccines.

None of these things are hard to do; all of them are important.

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