Antibiotic resistant “superbugs” have become one of the world’s most pressing public health concerns. An estimated two million people become infected with drug-resistant bacteria in the US each year. Of those, at least 23,000 die.
By 2050, the chart below shows, antibiotic-resistant bugs could kill an estimated 10 million people each year. Shockingly, this would surpass even cancer.
When penicillin — the first antibiotic — was discovered in 1928, it flipped medicine on its head … in a good way. It was called a “miracle drug,” suddenly offering a cure for some of the most nefarious of diseases.
Infections from simple scratches and common cases of strep throat used to kill people regularly. With antibiotics, such infections became easily treatable. Since the 1940s, doctors and patients have been basking in the glory of this life-saving drug, maybe even taking it for granted.
In their understandable excitement, however, doctors began to over-prescribe and patients began to self-treat. In fact, it is estimated that more than half of patients who visit a clinic in the US are inappropriately prescribed antibiotics — often for symptoms caused by viruses that these “miracle drugs” are utterly powerless against.
When antibiotics are overused or used inappropriately — when a patient doesn’t finish a full course of treatment, for example, or when low-dose antibiotics are used routinely in agriculture — it helps hasten the spread of resistant bacteria. After a course of antibiotics, some naturally resistant bacteria will be left behind, survival-of-the-fittest style; the more frequently antibiotics are used, the more prevalent these fiercer strains will become. Adjacent bacteria can also acquire resistance by mutating or exchanging genetic material with the resistant strains.
When those treatment-resistant bacteria grow and multiply, they can lead to new infections that then become difficult or even impossible to treat.
Such is the growing concern of public health officials and the impetus behind the launch of the Obama administration’s five-year plan to combat antibiotic resistance. The realisation that our longstanding approach is no longer working is also fuelling the development of novel therapies that sidestep current treatment conventions.
The message is clear: We must act to stop antibiotic resistance, and we must act quickly. Millions of lives hang in the balance.
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