Imagine a world where antibiotics are no longer effective and where even the simplest of illnesses, such as strep throat or a urinary tract infection, can lead to permanent disability, or even death. Now imagine the effect this may have on your family or loved ones—watching an elderly parent die from pneumonia, or a child losing a limb from an antibiotic resistant infection. Whether we like it or not, our lives have become intimately connected with the fate of antibiotics. Chances are we’ve all been treated at some point or other—for childhood illnesses, such as ear infections or strep—or even for something as small as a complicated scrape. Chances are we’ve also taken antibiotics for granted. Unfortunately, antibiotic resistance is quickly catching up to even the strongest antibiotics in our arsenal—potentially limiting their future use and effectiveness.
This is the primary focus of Antibiotic Awareness Week (Nov. 12 – 18): a campaign meant to educate various groups on the dangers of antibiotic resistance and warn of inappropriate use. Sponsored by antibioticawareness.ca, and backed by an international coalition of healthcare and disease control organizations, the event features international meetings, webinars for health professionals, fact sheets, and downloadable awareness posters.
As the event’s site reveals, the need for public education on resistance is greater than ever before. Often, patients don’t understand the difference between viral and bacterial illness and are likely to demand antibiotic treatment for simple, uncomplicated colds and flus. According to a Boston study (2003), 93% of those surveyed understood that viruses were the cause of colds—yet 66% within the same group also believed that bacteria were the cause. A full 53% of those surveyed believed that antibiotics were necessary to treat colds. What does this mean for antibiotic resistance? Unfortunately, research shows a clear-cut link between treating colds with antibiotics and the development of resistant bacteria. A 2010 Japanese study, for example, shows a higher degree of resistant s. pneumoniae—a bacterium that causes sinusitis, pneumonia, and ear infections— among children treated with antibiotics for colds than among those who weren’t. Since Japan has a high degree of resistant strains of s. pneumonia, circulating, this is a potentially huge development.
Similarly concerning to the campaign is the agricultural use of antibiotics as growth enhancing agents. In 2010, 29-million pounds (link to previous article) of antibiotics were used for farm animals, alone—statistically this makes up about 80% of all antibiotics used on a yearly basis. Research has also proven a firm link between current farming practices and the development of antibiotic resistance. Of particular note is the development of multi-drug resistant Salmonella.
Overall, as our current arsenal dwindles due to carelessness and overuse, there are few things left to replace it. According to the World Health Organization, there is a distinct lack of new antibiotic classes in development, today. Most new antibiotics are spinoffs of current drugs—with the same weakness and susceptibilities to resistance as their parents. Unfortunately, as older antibiotics begin to fail, there is less economic incentive for drug companies to develop new ones, due to high costs and lower profits— as bacteria adapt quickly to new antibiotics too. Blockbuster cancer and cholesterol drugs are the current darlings of the pharmaceutical industry— with better profit margins and longevity than antibiotics. Combine this shrinking supply of new antibiotics with misuse of the current lines and the potential for disaster exists.