Post-antibiotic era: Resistance to once life-saving drugs kills 35,000 Americans every year

The improper use of antibiotics by doctors, hospitals, patients, farmers and others in the agricultural sector have aggravated the crisis, say experts


                            Post-antibiotic era: Resistance to once life-saving drugs kills 35,000 Americans every year

As antibiotic resistance continues to rise to dangerous levels in all countries, experts now say that the world is heading towards a post-antibiotic era: where common infections that were once treatable, will become fatal once again. This may even bring the end of modern medicine as we know it. These were the remarks of Dr Margaret Chan, the former Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) last year when she appeared before the United Nations.

As WHO observed Antibiotic Awareness Week from November 18-24 this year, the number of deaths due to antibiotic resistance reiterate that we are in crisis. In the US, one person dies every 15 minutes because of an infection that antibiotics can no longer treat effectively. This brings the death toll to 35,000 deaths a year. At this rate, experts believe that antibacterial resistance could kill as many as 300,000,000 people worldwide and stunt global economic output by $100 trillion in the next 35 years.

"There are already patients struggling with infections that are difficult or impossible tor treat due to increases in antimicrobial resistance," Dr Hilary M. Babcock, Professor of Medicine, Infectious Disease Division, Washington University School of Medicine told MEA WorldWide (MEAWW).

Babcock stresses that people should be more thoughtful about antibiotic use. Efforts must be directed towards decreasing antibiotic use in agriculture, in livestock and poultry, she adds.

The rise and fall of antibiotics

The first antibiotic, penicillin, was discovered in 1928. Its success meant several antibiotics have flooded the market since, marking the era of antibiotics. Saving millions of lives across the globe, antibiotics have allowed doctors to perform complicated surgeries, including cesarean delivery, with minimal risk.

The spread of penicillin resistance was already documented by 1942. By the late 1960s, more than 80% the Staphylococcu aureus -- bacteria known to cause pneumonia and sepsis -- showed resistance to the antibiotic.

Earlier, penicillin could easily treat a staph infection. But today, if a person has contracted MRSA – a population of the bacteria resistant to antibiotics -- penicillin is useless against it. In fact, studies show that two in 100 people are carrying around the MRSA bacteria. And it is not just staph infection, diseases like tuberculosis, STDs and urinary tract infections are also becoming more resistant to treatment.

Resistance is driven by the bacteria's natural ability to adapt. Due to a stroke of luck, certain bacteria can have random changes introduced into their DNA, helping them survive the onslaught of antibiotics. These changes can then be transferred to others, leading to a new population that no longer respond to the treatment.

Making matters worse, however, is the indiscriminate use of antibiotics. The improper use of antibiotics by doctors, hospitals, patients, farmers and others in the agricultural sector have aggravated the crisis.

Antibiotics have been prescribed far more than necessary. "Most respiratory illnesses are caused by viruses and antibiotics won't help. Even if you've been sick for a week, probably still a virus, and antibiotics won't help. Even many ear infections are viral," Babcock told MEAWW. "However", she adds, "if you were getting better and then get worse again, always check with a doctor to see if you have a new bacterial infection that needs treatment. Antibiotics are life saving when needed. It is high time that we start using antibiotics more appropriately."

Almost 80% of all antibiotics in the US are given to cows, pigs, and chickens, to make them grow more quickly or as a cheap alternative to keeping them healthy. (Getty Images)

Further, antibiotics are far more widespread in the livestock industry. In fact, almost 80% of all antibiotics in the US are given to cows, pigs, and chickens, to make them grow more quickly or as a cheap alternative to keeping them healthy, according to a 2017 study.

In this tug of war between the bacteria and antibiotics, the indiscriminate use of antibiotics has fast tracked the bacteria's ability to fend off the antibiotic. And we are left with a disease that we do not know how to treat anymore, say experts.

Given the circumstances countries find themselves in, Babcock advises people must try and avoid getting an infection in the first place. "Use hand sanitizer or wash your hands frequently. Get yourself, your kids, your parents and grandparents vaccinated. By keeping up with age appropriate vaccinations you decrease your risk for infections." Babcock told MEAWW.

She adds, "While most vaccines protect against viruses, after viral infections you can be at higher risk for bacterial infections - and some vaccines like the pertussis and pneumonia vaccines protect against bacteria. Stay home when you are sick so as not to infect others use safer sex practices (ie use a condom) to avoid getting sexually transmitted infections." 

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