Antimicrobial resistance is one of the world’s most serious public health threats. Infections from multi-drug resistant “superbugs” are already killing at least 23,000 people in the US per year.
By 2050, resistant bugs are projected to wipe out a staggering 10 million people annually worldwide. This will outpace the number of deaths from cancer.
Quite shockingly, many of these fatal cases will result from common and previously trivial injuries and diseases we now hardly think twice about. Here are just a few examples of minor infections that antibiotics will no longer be able to treat in the future:
Cuts and scrapes that become infected
Paper cuts and skinned knees seem innocent enough. But a scary strain of the most common bacteria that causes skin infection — Staphylococcus aureus — has developed resistance to a variety of antibiotics that used to kill it easily. The strain, called methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, is dangerously resistant to drugs and has spread widely since its first appearance in 1960.
You’re most likely to pick up this bug through a break in your skin. Infections primarily occur in hospitals, but we’re seeing them more and more in the general community. While life-threatening cases of invasive MRSA are still relatively rare, studies show that two people out of every 100 carry MRSA in their bodies.
Every year in the US, at least 80,000 people become infected with MRSA and of those, 11,000 die, though these numbers are probably a low estimate. While a recent CDC study showed that MRSA infections in hospitals have declined 54% between 2005 and 2011, the CDC still lists this drug-resistant bug as a major patient threat.
Urinary tract infections
Urinary tract infections (UTIs), which account for about 10 million visits to hospitals or doctors offices per year, are one of the most common bacterial infections in the US. About a third of women will get a urinary tract infection by age 24, and half of all women will have at least one UTI in their lifetime.
UTIs commonly occur when bacteria from the digestive tract migrate into the urinary tract. Left untreated, the infection can spread from the urethra and bladder upwards into the kidneys and ureters — the narrow tubes that connect the kidneys to the bladder. Infections that occur higher up in the body are more likely to be dangerous and can lead to a blood infection that can cause organ failure and even death.
Of course, most UTIs clear up themselves or are quickly treated with antibiotics. But complications from persistant UTIs may become more common.
In recent years, UTIs have become increasingly harder to treat as the bacteria that cause UTIs — usually E. coli — have become more and more resistant to antibiotics. A 2012 study that examined urine samples in patients from the US between 2000 and 2010 found a substantial increase in E. coli resistant to the drugs commonly used to treat UTIs.
Sexually transmitted infections
As if the threat of an STI itself wasn’t enough to startle anyone who is sexually active, transmitted infections that were once easily treatable with antibiotics are quickly becoming resistant. Gonorrhea — a sexually transmitted infection that is easily spread by the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae — is going to be particularly nasty.
About 30% of the 820,000 cases of gonorrhea in the US per year are due to bacteria that have developed resistance to at least some of the key drugs used to treat it. The CDC is already considering it an urgent public health threat that requires immediate and aggressive action, especially since the disease causes pretty vile reproductive complications, including infertility.
If a particularly resistant strain of gonorrhea spreads, in just a 10 year period it would cause about 75,000 more incidences of pelvic inflammatory disease (a major cause of infertility), 15,000 cases of epididymitis (inflammation of the testicles), and 222 additional HIV infections, which is transmitted more easily in people infected with gonorrhea. The CDC estimates that it would cost $US235 million in medical care.
Let this be a lesson to always wash your hands after handling raw chicken. Salmonella, the rod-shaped bacteria that gives about 1.2 million people in the US horrible cases of diarrhoea, fever and abdominal cramps every year, is now developing resistance to multiple drugs. It already sends about 23,000 people to the hospital and causes about 450 deaths in the US per year.
Salmonella mostly spreads from animals to humans through food. If a cow has been treated with antibiotics — a routine practice in agriculture — and develops a resistance to them, that resistance can be transferred to you. If an infection is left untreated, it can spread to the blood and cause life-threatening complications. Annual costs from drug-resistant salmonella poisoning are estimated at $US365 million annually.
Another increasingly resistant stomach bug, the bacteria campylobacter, which usually causes diarrhoea, fever, abdominal cramps and sometimes serious complications such as paralysis, is also showing increasing resistance to common antibiotics. The CDC reports that it’s already becoming resistant to ciprofloxacin, an extremely powerful antibiotic, in about 25% of those testing positive for the bug.
While this overgrowth of fungal microorganisms is not treated with antibiotics, it’s commonly caused by their overuse.
Candida yeasts, which normally live on our skin and mucous membranes, are directly influenced by powerful antibiotics. Just one round of antibiotics can wipe out much of the good bacteria that keep yeast levels low. If all of your good bacteria are gone, yeast can grow out of check.
This overgrowth of Candida — caused indirectly by antibiotic use — can cause a yeast infection. And antibiotics can indirectly create resistant strains of yeast as well. The more times you use an antibiotic, the more times you’re likely to get a yeast infection, which increases the times you’re likely to be treated with powerful antifungals. Those particularly strong yeast that survive each round of treatment end up reproducing strains that become more resistant to powerful first and second line antifungal medications over time.
Yeast resistance isn’t only caused by antibiotic use, however. Some strains of yeast are naturally resistant to certain antifungal medications.
Nevertheless, when an overgrowth of yeast occurs in the body, those who are already sick are particularly susceptible to the infection’s ill effects. Patients who are hospitalized or have compromised immune systems are most at risk for developing life-threatening yeast infections, which can infect the blood and other vital organs.
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