Antibiotic resistance is fast becoming a major new epidemic and a serious problem for many major health organisations around the world. This is an issue that has been getting steadily worse over the years but has now reached fever- pitch – being treated with the same attention and urgent calls for action as other global health problems such as malaria and HIV.
Antibiotic resistance is defined as the ability of a bacteria to be unaffected by the drug designed to kill it and stop its spread. Experts are becoming increasingly concerned that antibiotic resistance and the development of superbugs (bacterial infections that are no longer treatable with any known antibiotic) will catapult us back to a time when infections such as gonorrhoea were untreatable and life threatening. Currently, antibiotic resistance kills about 700,000 people globally per year but by 2050 that number is expected to rise to 10 million, overtaking cancer as the main cause of death around the world.
The main origin of the antibiotic resistance crisis is unnecessary use. Shockingly, according to Public Health England (PHE), the government’s public health advisers, about 20 per cent of all antibiotic prescriptions given out in the UK are unnecessary. This is often because patients pressure their doctors into giving them antibiotic prescriptions when they’re not needed or because doctors give out prescriptions as a precaution, when they are not entirely sure of a patient’s diagnosis.
When used properly, antibiotics can help destroy disease-causing bacteria but taking an antibiotic when you have a viral infection will not affect the bug that is making you sick. Instead, it will destroy a wide variety of bodily bacteria, including the ‘good’ bacteria in your gut that normally helps you to digest food and fight infection. Bacteria that are tough enough to survive the drug’s effects will have a chance to grow and quickly multiply, now unhampered in their quest for nutrients and space. These drug-resistant strains can then spread to other people, allowing drug-resistant bacteria to thrive .
Another cause of antibiotic resistance is the over-use of these drugs in farming. The FDA estimates that 80 per cent of all antibiotics used in the US are given to animals instead of people. The farming industry relies heavily on antibiotics to help livestock grow faster – it means that animals can be kept healthy in cramped conditions where disease spreads easily.
The use of antibiotics in farming subsequently introduces these drugs into the environment, giving bacteria in the soil a chance to adapt and evolve resistance to our drugs. Resistance-genes can also be shared with other bacteria in the environment so that if these bacteria were to ever infect humans, our antibiotics would be ineffective treatments against them.
In fact, we have spread antibiotic resistance so far that clusters of bacteria with drug-resistant genes are now turning up in the guts of penguins in Antarctica. Researchers at the University of Sydney, Australia compared the diversity of gut microbes carrying antibiotic resistance genes in Gentoo penguins living around two Antarctic bases. They found that birds that exhibited the greatest diversity of antibiotic resistance genes were those that lived in the ponds of a sewage treatment plant. Presumably, this is because human waste containing bacteria carrying these antibiotic resistance genes leaked out into the environment and allowed these bacteria to spread to nearby penguin populations, demonstrating the often harmful inter-linkage between humans and our environment.
Fighting the global, cross-species development of antibiotic resistance is proving to be very difficult. Although scientists have been trying to keep ahead of newly emerging drug-resistant bacteria, the last antibiotic was discovered in 1987 and no new developments have been made since. In a bid to out-run antibiotic resistance, scientists are now turning to nature for inspiration, looking at how animals, plants and even other bacteria fight against different strains of microorganisms. Researchers are studying the symbiotic relationships between different species such as leaf cutter ants that have been shown to interact with a type of Streptomyces bacteria, giving the ants a form of antibiotic resistance against other bacteria strains. Scientists are also travelling far and wide, searching in increasingly harsh conditions such as in volcanic vents at the bottom of the ocean and in swamps in an attempt to find new species of bacteria that might provide us with new avenues for treatments.
To make matters worse, current prescription of antibiotic treatment is often an educated guess as it can take a lab weeks to test and identify the correct strain of bacteria. This means that doctors cannot always immediately identify the right antibiotic to treat a particular infection, resulting in treatment programmes that are a bit of trial and error and increasing the unnecessary use of antibiotics. In attempt to remedy this, researchers at the National Institute for Health have been looking at ways to speed up the process of diagnostic testing. Faster diagnostic testing offers one of the best hopes for treating infectious diseases and luckily, we are making technological advances in this area.
Until new antibiotics are developed, there are a certain ways in which we can combat antibiotic resistance ourselves. First, cut down on the number of antibiotics. This means taking antibiotics properly (completing the full course) and only when needed. Second, prevent bacterial infections from spreading by washing your hands frequently with soap and water and not sharing personal items such as towels or razors. In doing this, we can all do our part to fight drug-resistant bacteria.
Image credit: NIAID via Flickr