Modern medicine is a victim of its own success. The World Health Organization (WHO) has sounded the klaxon call that we are running out of usable antibiotics, calling antibiotic resistance “one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today.” Doctors have raised concern about antibiotic-resistant bacteria, a situation made worse by patients who fail to finish a course of prescribed antibiotics, or take antibiotics for infections where the medicine would be ineffective.
When prescribed antibiotics, some patients take upon themselves the decision to stop taking the antibiotics before they have run their course. This allows the bacteria to grow against the antibiotic, lessening the effect the antibiotic has on them.
A World at Risk
Antibiotics are prescribed by today’s health service professionals to stop bacterial infections, but they are not a universal cure-all. Beyond affecting the individual with a longer bout of illness, such behaviour also reduces “crowd immunity,” or the ability of our society in general to fight disease.
Antibiotic-resistant infections have been rising worldwide.
The WHO states that an ever-expanding list of infections, such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, gonorrhoea, and salmonellosis, are becoming harder to treat. This is because the antibiotics used to treat them have become less effective.
As bacteria reproduce even under the onslaught of antibiotics, hardier strains of bacteria develop. Patient misuse is a substantial part of the reason for increasingly antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Combined, these factors reduce the effectiveness of the antibiotics.
Two main patient behaviours are to blame for increased antibiotic-resistant bacteria:
- Treating non-bacterial infections with antibiotics — A basic science illiteracy in many people allows them to confuse bacteria with viruses, two completely different types of infection vectors. Bacteria are single-celled organisms; viruses are small, infectious, non-living agents that can only replicate (not reproduce) inside living cells.
- Failing to complete a prescribed course of antibiotics — Feeling better, the patient stops taking the last few days of medications, allowing the bacteria that survived the first few days of treatment to roar back, stronger and tougher than ever.
Because of our interconnected society, an asymptomatic patient can board a plane and be in a distant country within a few hours, allowing them to spread the bacterial infection.
Say you had a bacterial infection, felt better, and stopped taking your antibiotics. You may show no symptoms but still be hosting a thriving, growing colony of bacteria in your lungs, digestive tract, urinary tract, or throat.
Arriving at a distant shore, you could spread illness in many ways:
- Coughing or sneezing
- Skin-to-skin contact
- Touching food with unwashed hands
- Sharing body fluids (saliva, blood, semen) with others
As you spend time abroad, you may mistake bacterial illness for a reaction to local food, weather, or water. Oblivious to the stronger, bacterial resistant infection inside you, you may spread the bacterial infection to local populations.
Antibiotics, much like the bacteria they fight, are living things. Over time, the bacteria the antibiotic is designed to fight may become resistant to the antibiotic as they develop. Under normal circumstances, natural resistance may take many years.
But when patient misuse enters the picture, that rise to resilience may take considerably less time. Left to continue developing against he antibiotic, the bacteria have the potential of becoming so-called "superbugs", like Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), super gonorrhoea, or drug-resistant chlamydia.
Once bacteria become resistant, resistance passes on to other strains of the same bacteria. The British Medical Bulletin identifies “injudicious use of antibiotics” as a major factor increasing the spread of resistance worldwide:
“In many areas, the availability of antibiotics ‘over the counter’ or via the internet allows the non-prescriber to have free and unrestricted access to these agents.”
Adding to the hastening spread of "superbugs:"
- Poor personal hygiene
- Unsafe food preparation
- Unsanitary toilet facilities
Finish Your Medicines
Every patient can help curb the increase in antibiotic-resistant strains of superbugs. The NHS politely but firmly reminds us to:
- Avoid asking for antibiotics for viral illnesses like colds, sore throats, or influenza
- Complete your full course of antibiotics to completely eliminate the possibility that infectious, harmful bacteria remain in your system
Heed the advice of health professionals. Do not insist on antibiotics for mild illnesses or for viral infections. When your doctor prescribes antibiotics, always take the entire course of medicine, whether a 10-day course of oral antibiotics or a topical cream for a skin infection.
Everyone has the ability to reduce the spread and future development of "superbugs." Do your part by taking all your prescribed antibiotics. If you have questions or concerns about your antibiotics, be sure to ask your doctor.