The World Health Organization (WHO), a specialized agency belonging to the United Nations, lists antibiotic resistance as one of the largest threats to global health. Medical development, food security, and the overall sustainability of the human species is at risk due to the increasing number of infections that are becoming immune to antibiotics
Countless patients owe their lives to the discovery of penicillin in 1928. Regarded as the world’s first antibiotic, penicillin allows medical practitioners to treat many of the common infections that were once rampant. Prior to the advent of antibiotics, infectious diseases contributed to high rates of global mortality and an average life expectancy of just 47 years. Decades later, antibiotics remain a staple of the medical industry. They are used to treat everything from acne to syphilis. Often, they are the last line of defence against infections that would otherwise be fatal.
While bacteria can become immune to antibiotics naturally over time, this process is rapidly accelerating due to factors such as overprescription, misuse, inadequate hygiene practices, and the routine use of antibiotics on farm animals. In recent years, the prescription and consumption of antibiotics has become more common, even in cases such as the flu where antibiotics are ineffective. The public overconsuming antibiotics, and patients not finishing their treatment courses, is cited as a major contributor to this epidemic.
Already, common bacteria such as those that cause pneumonia, gonorrhea, staph infections, and tuberculosis have developed strains that are resistant to antibiotics.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently disclosed that, each year, over 2.8 million antibiotic-resistant infections occur in the U.S. Of these patients, an estimated 35,000 die.
In its report, the CDC called several bacterial strains, such as Carbapenem-resistant Acinetobacter, “urgent threats” to public health. Carbapenem is an antibiotic agent used to effectively treat severe and/or high-risk infections. Acinetobacter, on the other hand, causes pneumonia as well as infections in the blood or urinary tract. According to the CDC, this antibiotic-resistant strain has already led to thousands of hospitalizations across the globe.
Concerns are growing about the effectiveness of drugs used as a last resort against serious infections. One antibiotic, Colistin, is primarily used in cases where other antibiotics have been rendered ineffective due to factors such as resistance. Despite its side effects, the 50-year old antibiotic is used as a “last-line therapy” to save the lives of critically ill patients. Alarmingly, researchers discovered superbugs emerging from China that are resistant to this vital drug. While Colistin is prohibited from use on livestock in many parts of the world, Chinese farmers spent years using Colistin as a growth promoter for animals. As a result, some bacteria developed the mcr-1 gene, rendering them immune to the last-ditch antibiotic.
While several nations vowed to address this major concern to public wellbeing, the threat persists. Even former UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, warned that antibiotic resistance could cast us “back into the dark ages of medicine"
Researchers continue to warn of this epidemic’s catastrophic nature. The development of antibiotic resistance is not a discriminant process: virtually everyone is at risk of superbugs that are immune to to life-saving medication. In order to avoid a regression to the pre-antibiotic era, it is up to policy makers to ensure that contributors to antibiotic resistance, such the misuse of prescription drugs in both humans and livestock, are addressed. Perhaps it seems humanity may be forced to look to new solutions in order to cull the re-emergence of illnesses that claimed countless lives before the advent of these life-saving drugs.
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