When we see the word antibiotic, what comes to mind is life-saving drugs, medicinal treatment, and germ-fighting antidotes, remedies, etc. But there’s another word, a far less positive word, that is associated with our use of antibiotics today: epidemic.
Define epidemic: a widespread occurrence of an infectious disease in a community at a particular time.
Antibiotics are supposed to help prevent epidemics. And yet, they may actually be causing the worst epidemic facing the human race today. The very thing that has been fighting infections for years could now be the cause of mankind’s destruction. Why? Antibiotic resistance.
Most freshman biology classes explain how an antibiotic works. Antibiotics were developed to fight infections caused by bacteria such as meningitis, MRSA, strep throat, and even simple infections, such as sinus and ear infections. They work in one of two ways: 1. They stop bacteria from multiplying
2.. They kill bacteria
Either way, the result is the same. The infection is stopped and the patient is cured. But that is assuming that the antibiotics are not facing bacteria that have evolved and adapted to become resistant to traditional antibiotics. There remains the possibility that we are facing a whole new strain of “superbug” on which antibiotics have no effect.
Penicillin was introduced into bacteria populations in 1943, and by 1945 penicillin resistance had been identified in some strains of bacteria. Originally, resistance was attributed to genetic mutation in bacteria that resulted from selective pressure. However, scientists soon realized that an overuse of antibiotics was putting a biological pressure on bacteria that caused more rapid mutations and adaptations. The process of conjugation (transfer of genetic material between bacteria) then allows resistant bacteria to transfer their resistant genes to other bacteria. Resistance is spreading faster than ever and is now rendering certain antibiotics null and void.
What is meant by the “overuse of antibiotics”? How can we use too much of a life-saving medicine? It turns out that antibiotics are being over-prescribed. According to the World Health Organization’s antimicrobial resistance coordinator, Dr. Charles Penn, antibiotics are often prescribed for no useful purpose. There is a poor understanding of the difference between viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens. For example, antibiotics are sometimes prescribed for cold and flu viruses and create no positive effect. In fact, dosing ourselves with an unnecessary amount of antibiotics only attacks bacteria present in your body that are not harmful. These bacteria must then develop resistance and may then transfer that resistance to more harmful bacteria.
The misuse of antibiotics is another contributor in the development of bacterial resistance. A common occurrence among patients who take antibiotics is not taking the recommended dosage. Patients stop taking their antibiotics once they start feeling better instead of finishing the full round of treatment. As a consequence, the antibiotics do not finish killing off the bacteria. Now the bacteria have been exposed to the antibiotic and can develop resistance and return with a vengeance. The previous antibiotic used will not be effective and a more powerful one must be prescribed. If this cycle continues, superbugs can develop. Superbugs are resistant to even the most powerful antibiotics and cannot be treated, resulting in dire consequences for the person infected.
The Mayo Clinic documents approximately 23,000 deaths from antibiotic-resistant infections annually in the US alone. Worldwide numbers have been estimated as high as 700,000 deaths annually. In the past decade, the science of developing new antibiotics has slowed, whereas bacteria are adapting faster than ever. If the upward trend in antibiotic resistance continues, society could end up back where it started: dying from simple infections. What were once our greatest weapons have turned against us, leaving more dangerous enemies in their place. We are one step away from creating a superbug that cannot be treated. An epidemic looms. Will antibiotic resistance will be our downfall?
We’re all used to the marketing ploys: “Antibacterial soap kills 99.9% of germs!” It might come as a shock to know that this claim is misleading. Then again, when aren’t advertisements misleading? Cleaning companies define “germs” in many different ways and often will not include viruses, fungi, or protozoans in their definition. Germs may also be the good bacteria that are naturally on your hands. So what do antibacterial products really do?
It turns out that there is little difference in the effectiveness of antibacterial soap and regular soap. Antibacterial soaps tend to contain only one or two more ingredients, the most common one being triclosan. Triclosan is the “bacteria-killing” ingredient that actually doesn’t kill bacteria. In 2013 the FDA released this statement:
“Millions of Americans use antibacterial hand soap and body wash products. Although consumers generally view these products as effective tools to help prevent the spread of germs, there is currently no evidence that they are any more effective at preventing illness than washing with plain soap and water.”
Antibacterial products are not providing any benefits. In fact, they may be harmful. Similar to the vast overuse of antibiotics leads to antibiotic resistance, overuse of antibacterial soaps can lead to bacterial resistance. Because the antibacterial products are being used constantly, the bacteria are evolving resistance to these soaps and more superbugs can develop. Not only are we creating bacteria that are going to be immune to basic cleaning supplies, but antibacterial soaps are also harming our good germs. When we use products with triclosan, the ingredient cannot tell the difference between good and bad bacteria, and thus tries to kill whatever it comes across. By attacking our good bacteria, we are weakening our immune systems and making us more vulnerable to the super-bacteria.
Just as we should stop using so many antibiotics, we should stop using so many antibacterial cleaners! The age of resistance is upon us due to overuse of such products!
Illustration by Ziqi Wang