- Getty Images/Joe Raedle
If general practice doctors were handing out prescriptions for harmful drugs like candy, we’d do something about it, right?
Thanks to years of research, we have a clear and stark image of what’s going to happen when nightmare bacteria stop responding to the panoply of medications we throw at them.
In India, the nightmarish scenario is already unfolding: thousands of newborns there died last year of infections caused by superbugs too powerful for antibiotics.
“Five years ago, we almost never saw these kinds of infections,” New Delhi neonatologist Neelam Kler told The Times. “Now, close to 100% of the babies referred to us have multi-drug resistant infections. It’s scary.”
But it isn’t a new development, and experts have seen it coming: In 1961 on the set of “Cleopatra,” actress Elizabeth Taylor contracted a deadly infection caused by staph bacteria that were resistant to penicillin. It was methicillin, a new synthetic form of penicillin developed for this reason, which likely saved her life.
One of the chief drivers of antibiotic resistance, i.e. superbugs, is our zealous overprescription of antibiotics. More often than not, doctors are prescribing the drugs for ailments that they don’t even treat. And the problem is global:
- In the US, some 60% of peoplebrought to doctor’s offices and emergency roomsby sore throats – one of the tell-tale symptoms of common colds and the flu, both of which are caused by viruses – walk out with prescriptions for antibiotics, which kill bacteria, one long-term study found.A British study found that people who visited general practice doctors complaining of coughs and colds got antibiotics 51% of the time. Last year, 23,000 Americansdied from bacterial infections that didn’t respond to antibiotics.Between 2000 and 2010, international sales of antibiotics for human use shot up 36%, with Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa making up three-quarters of that increase.American farmers continue to overuse antibiotics in pigs, cattle, and chickens, creating stronger, more resistant bacterial strains.
What’s driving the resistance?
When Paul Ehrlich – whose discoveries were made popular nearly a decade later by Alexander Fleming and his discovery of penicillin – coined the idea of a “magic bullet” which wiped out disease-causing bacteria while leaving its human hosts unharmed, his developments were hailed as a leap forward in medical science.
Ehrlich’s discovery became the foundation for wonder drugs known as antibiotics: Drugs that could expertly target and destroy harmful microbes which caused deadly bacterial infections. They were exceedingly popular. A 2006 paper in the Canadian Journal of Infectious Diseases and Medical Microbiology hails the 1950s and 60s as the “golden age” of antibiotic discovery.
Yet within years, scientists began to watch with dismay as the bacteria developed resistance to the drugs.
It happened with surprising speed: In 1961 on the set of “Cleopatra,” actress Elizabeth Taylor contracted a highly lethal lung infection caused by staph bacteria. But there was a problem: The bacteria were already resistant to penicillin. Methicillin, a new synthetic form of penicillin developed for this reason, was credited with saving Taylor’s life.
Today, only about 10% of staph infections can be cured with penicillin. And the new, more vicious strain, known as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (or MRSA), doesn’t respond to methicillin either.
Antibiotic resistance isn’t new. “Within two to three years after the introduction of a new antibiotic treatment, resistance usually develops,” the authors of the 2006 paper state.
It’s about time we do something to address it. Perhaps we could start by curbing our zealous over-prescription of the drugs.