The world is headed for an apocalypse but not the kind you see in sci-fi films. Scientists fear the rise in drug-resistant infections is becoming a global health problem. It may indicate a tipping point in the fight again drug-resistance – one that could return us to the age that existed before antibiotics.
The medical industry changed the day pharmacologist Sir Alexander Fleming noticed that a fungus produced by the genus Penicillium killed off certain kinds of bacteria. Since that time, researchers have understood that evolution would render antibiotics ineffective at some point. Like all organisms, bacteria adapt to the environment to survive. In a world saturated with antibiotics, that adaption is leading to an increasing resistance to traditional therapeutic treatments. It is time for consumers to understand that what they don’t know about antibiotic resistance might kill them.
It is easy to associate epidemics with third world populations, but antibiotic resistance is very much a first world concern. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that antibiotic resistance is growing at an alarming rate. Infections like MSRA can happen anywhere at any time, explains the CDC, and affect entire communities.
They are especially prevalent in healthcare environments. In 2012, several deaths in Seattle were linked to the transmission of a drug-resistant strain of bacteria called carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteria, CRE. As many as 35 patients were infected after having a routine procedure done that used a specialized endoscope. It is unclear how many of these hospital-acquired infections occur because they often go unreported.
Each year, 2 million people in the U.S. develop a resistant infection and at least 23,000 of them will die because of it. That number could increase to 10 million by the year 2050.
Bacteria have but one real goal – to reproduce. From the moment they are introduced to an antibiotic, they begin looking for ways to outsmart it, so the next generation can survive. The answer to the problem might be outside the realm of antibiotics to more revolutionary solutions. That is how a 25-year-old Ph.D. student at the University of Melbourne sees it, at least. She has developed a system that breaks the bacteria apart at the cellular level instead of killing them off using another organism.
Shu Lam has put together a star-shaped polymer that literally rips the invaders apart without any collateral damage. Each polymer is specific to the various organisms it hunts and designed to kill efficiently using one of several possible methods. Think of it as a bacterial assassin with multiple tools in its arsenal. The weapons disrupt the wall of the microbe without harming any other tissue. Once the cell wall falls, the stress causes the bacteria to destroy itself. It is an effective solution that requires no antibiotics to work. Of course, with this new concept comes lots of testing and it likely won’t be available for human use for many years to come, but it offers some hope in a world full of antibiotic resistance.
Educating yourself about how antibiotics work and when they are necessary is a good place to start. Antibiotics only work against specific bacteria, so they are ineffective for many common illnesses like the cold. When you go to the doctor, don’t ask for them. The doctor will prescribe them to you if necessary.
When you do take antibiotics, follow the instructions carefully. Don’t skip doses and take all the medication. Don’t save half of the bottle in case you need them later. Continue to take the pills even if you feel better. The full treatment is necessary to kill the infection completely and prevent resistant strains from developing and multiplying.
Other tips to prevent drug-resistance include:
The good news is that new drugs are in development that will help stave off the resistance including some that are not antibiotics. The combination of smart antibiotic choices, the effective use of natural products like probiotics and new science might be enough to prevent the antibiotic apocalypse.
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