One-hundred years ago, the top cause of death was caused by infection and diseases such as tuberculosis and pneumonia occurred rampantly without cures. This all changed with the introduction of penicillin, a slew of subsequently discovered antibiotics and improvements in public health. Widespread mortality caused by bacterial infections was becoming a thing of the past and science as a whole moved forward.
As we enter the 21 century, however, the security of these curable infections is beginning to disappear. In 2013, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that two million people acquired an infection that was resistant to one or more antibiotic and of these people, 23,000 would succumb to their infections. The rise of antibiotic resistance has led to the prevalence of old diseases such as the STD gonorrhea, which now infects 246,000 people annually and due to its high amounts of resistance, the CDC labels it as an “urgent threat.” Given that countless other bacteria are or are becoming resistant, the World Health Organization and CDC are calling for policies to help prevent further resistance.
You may already have an idea of what antibiotics and antibiotic resistance are, but a complete definition is required before we can consider ways to prevent further resistance. Antibiotics are medicines that are used to treat and prevent bacterial infections and are not effective against viruses. Bacteria develop resistance by acquiring mutations that help them survive. This is a process that happens naturally; bacteria have been developing resistance to antibiotic-like substances from other microorganisms for millions of years. However, what isn't natural is the rate at which resistance is being formed and the widespread use of antibiotics by humans is a huge contributor to this rapid increase.
What are some ways we can help prevent resistance? It may seem like an issue that could be left to the CDC or WHO to confront, but anyone can make a difference. One way to prevent resistance is with responsible antibiotic usage. Antibiotics are used to treat otherwise fatal infections, but unnecessary use of antibiotics is all too common. As we continue into the colder seasons, many people become sick and go to their physicians to ask for antibiotics. Oftentimes, with supper respiratory illness (URI) or symptoms such as sneezing, stuffy nose and coughing. Many people, including myself, have been guilty of asking their physicians for antibiotics in the hope of a quick fix for their URI. However, the common cold and a majority of URI’s are caused by viral infections and are not treatable with antibiotics. Next time you have a runny nose, do not pressure your doctor for antibiotics. Instead, wait a week to see if symptoms persist and then contact a doctor.
When antibiotics are necessary and have been prescribed, however, it is vital you complete the full course of antibiotics. Even if symptoms may have gone away, make sure to follow the prescription your doctor has given you. This will help prevent any bacteria that may have survived the initial round of antibiotics from increasing the likelihood of developing resistance.
Another area in which antibiotic resistance could be further prevented is in the agricultural sector. Farmers use antibiotics to prevent and treat infections in their animals as well as to increase animal growth. However, their widespread use of antibiotics in our food has led to an increase of resistance in the bacteria that affect humans too.
The agricultural sector is not being held responsible for this market externality of increasing antibiotic resistance. Many people do not realize the heavy use of antibiotics in our livestock and how it may affect our own health. If consumers are more aware of antibiotic resistance and wary of where their food is coming from, whether it has been raised with antibiotics or not, we may be able to sway farmers from using antibiotics in their food.
Antibiotic resistance is something all people should be aware of, but it is nothing to fear. If we all do our part in preventing resistance, we do not have to return to our pre-antibiotic era where millions of people were dying due to infections. In this article, I did not touch on the research being done on novel antibiotics, but even as an undergraduate here at UConn, students have the ability to get involved. If anyone is interested in researching novel therapies, they should look into MCB 2612, “Honors Core: Microbe Hunters-Crowdsourcing Antibiotic Discovery.” Students have the ability to isolate bacteria from the soil that may lead to the discovery of novel antibiotics. Remember, if we all do our part in preventing resistance, we can help save lives.
Michael Zhu is a contributor to The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at Michael.firstname.lastname@example.org.