Antibiotics are medicines that have been used since the 1940s and 1950s to treat various infections/diseases caused by bacteria. The real problem now is that a lot of bacteria are becoming increasingly resistant to the many types and combinations of antibiotics in use today. Meaning, that the antibiotics are less or no longer effective to kill bacteria. This has occurred due to the overuse/misuse of antibiotics. As you can imagine, the implications of this moving forward are troubling; a world where a simple cut on your skin turns into an infection, and in a matter of weeks to months you die as the bacteria has simply become resistant to the best remedies modern medicine has to offer.
There are many antibiotics in use today in lots of different forms depending on what it’s treating – tablets, capsules, creams, eye drops, IV, etc. You’ve probably taken some antibiotics throughout your life when you’ve had one bacterial infection or another. For example strep throat, pneumonia, eye/chest infections, UTIs, etc.
Different antibiotics will work against different groups of bacteria. There are broad-spectrum antibiotics, such as amoxicillin and gentamicin, that affect a wide range of bacteria. And there are narrow-spectrum antibiotics, such as penicillin, which target more specific types of bacteria.
They also work in different ways. Once inside the body, antibiotics work by blocking vital processes in bacteria which kills them or stops them from multiplying. The body’s own immune system cells will then do their thing to fight the bacteria. Penicillin works by destroying the cell walls of bacteria whilst other antibiotics interfere with reproduction or blocking protein production in the bacteria.
Antibiotics are powerful medications. However, some antibiotics are now less useful than they once were due to antibiotic resistance. It’s important to note that antibiotic resistance is not your body becoming immune to antibiotics, it’s that the bugs have become resistant to the antibiotics. This can prove to be costly by requiring multiple medications, extended hospital stays, and follow-up visits. It has been estimated that 750 000 deaths annually are from bacterial infections that could not be treated with appropriate antibiotics! It is progressing so rapidly that the UN has called it a “global health emergency.”
There is a growing list of antibiotics that are no longer useful. And more alarming is the list of dangerous bacteria resistant to antibiotics – “superbugs.” So how do bacteria become resistant to antibiotics? Using antibiotics when you don’t need them may mean that they won’t work for you when you need them in the future. We mentioned the overuse of antibiotics and also their misuse, for example:
- Overprescribing of antibiotics
- Patients not finishing a course of antibiotics because they already ‘feel better’ or not taking them as prescribed
- Unnecessary use of antibiotics in agriculture (animals and farming)
- Poor infection control in hospitals
- Poor hygiene and sanitation practices
Bacteria become resistant to antibiotics by adapting their structure or function as a defence. This is what stops the antibiotic from working effectively, as the bacterium has evolved to be stronger. They use several mechanisms such as neutralising the antibiotic before it has its killing effect, pumping out the antibiotics from its cells, making changes to the site/receptor where the antibiotic usually attach to in order to have an effect, and sometimes even sharing genetic material with other bacterial cells to allow them to also become resistant. These resistant bacteria survive, multiply, spread, and further wreak havoc in your body and to others when passed around.
What does antibiotic resistance mean for us?
If you have an antibiotic-resistant bacterial infection it means that:
- You will have the infection for longer
- You are more likely to suffer complications of the infection
- You could remain infectious for a longer period of time, and so are able to pass the infection on to other people which increases the problem
You may not realise it, but you could be passing on antibiotic-resistant bacteria to others if:
- You take antibiotics for a simple cold/flu virus
- If you’re not taking them as prescribed (dosage, timing)
- If you neglect good hygiene
What can we do moving forward?
- Prevent infections by up taking good personal hygiene habits such as handwashing
- Use antibiotics wisely and not demand them when your medical practitioner says you don’t need them, following the prescription if you are provided one
- Collecting and sharing data between countries and cases to aid policymakers
- Improve medical labs to further aid in the identification of bacteria and choosing the right drugs to kill them
- Develop new antibiotics/drugs
Antibiotics have only been around 70 to 80 years; bacteria have been on the planet for billions of years and have learned to develop all sorts of survival mechanisms – which doesn’t look good for us…so start doing the little things and perhaps we will find a solution in the near future.