Catastrophic Antibiotic Threat: Are We Becoming Immune To Antibiotics?

By Philip Ross on March 11, 2013 4:34 PM EDT

Sulfa drugs
Health officials fear a catastrophic antibiotic threat as bacteria become increasingly resistant to antibiotic treatments. (Photo: Flickr.com/GenBug)

A catastrophic antibiotic threat has UK medical officials extremely concerned over the developing danger of antibiotic resistant diseases.  

Britain's top health officials announced today that antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest threats to treating bacterial infections, Fox News reports. They cite a lack of innovation and investment into the development of antibiotics as reasons for the current deficit of new medicines that are needed to address the ever-evolving nature of infections.  

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"Antimicrobial resistance poses a catastrophic threat," Sally Davies, the chief medical officer for England, told reporters. "If we don't act now, any one of us could go into a hospital in 20 years for minor surgery and die because of an ordinary infection that can't be treated by antibiotics." Davies mentions things like routine hip replacements and organ transplants as becoming "deadly" due to the risk of infection.

With not enough resources being allocated to drug development and research, just a handful of new antibiotics have been released in the past few decades. As disease-causing microbes like staphylococcus aureas, which causes skin infections like boils and respiratory diseases like sinusitis, and S. pneumonia continue to evolve into "superbugs" resistant to antibiotics, it will become increasingly difficult to treat even minor infections. This is a situation which some experts call an "apocalyptic scenario".

According to the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy (CDDEP), a Washington DC-based public health research organization, the US ranks among the most intensive users of antibiotics in the world, with about 24 doses per 1,000 inhabitants per day (France ranks number one, followed by Greece, Italy and Belgium).  Penicillins are the most popular class of antibiotics in the US, due in large part to their relatively low cost. They account for almost one-third of all outpatient prescriptions filled in 2010 - or about 248 of every 1,000 prescriptions.

The developed world has been over-exposed to antibiotics. Part of what is causing the catastrophic antibiotic threat is that people often receive antibiotics unnecessarily and for diseases for which antibiotics won't even help. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that superfluous antibiotic prescriptions still account for about 58 percent of all antibiotic prescriptions in kids younger than 15 years of age. These are prescribed for things like colds, sore throats and sinus and ear infections for which antibiotics will neither cure nor keep other people from getting sick.

Through processes like natural selection, disease-causing microorganisms are developing resistance to these drugs. Each time you take an antibiotic, you are more likely to have some bacteria left that the medicine did not kill. Antibiotic resistance occurs naturally as natural selection weeds out weaker microorganisms, leaving the stronger ones leftover to multiply and mutate. "Widespread overuse and inappropriate use of antibiotics continues to fuel an increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria," the CDC says.

Earlier this year, US health officials raised the alarm against a drug-resistant strain of gonorrhea. A Canadian study had shown that the sexually transmitted disease was becoming resistant to the antibiotic used to treat it. "If left untreated, gonorrhea can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, ectopic pregnancy, stillbirths, severe eye infections in babies and infertility in both men and women," the Daily News reported. According to the World Health Organization, 106 million people are infected with gonorrhea every year; 300,000 of those are in the US.

Fox News reports that health officials are calling for "more cooperation between the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries to preserve the existing arsenal of antibiotics, and more focus on developing new ones."

To combat the catastrophic antibiotic threat posed by drug-resistant bacterium, Davies says we need to keep better track of drug-resistant superbugs, prescribe fewer antibiotics and only when needed, and ensure better hygiene to keep infections at bay.

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