When antibiotics were first discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928, it was a holy grail for humanity. All of a sudden, bacteria and other harmful microbials were could be equally killed off, and people recovered from their sicknesses practically instantaneously (compared to medicines at the time). Next thing you know, physicians are prescribing them as cures for illnesses they haven’t yet confirmed as infections all the time because, hey, they work.
Fast forward to today, and what do we have? Overuse leading to misuse and natural selection at work. Since we use antibiotics way more than necessary, those bacteria that we are supposed to be killing are being exposed to them way too often. Bacteria have some of the highest rates of mutation, and with all of this exposure that they are getting from the antibiotic overuse, they have a greater chance of developing mutations to resist that antibiotic. What does this mean for us? It means that now we have a super-resistant race of bacteria, called “superbugs,” that do not respond to existing antibiotic treatments. So are we actually moving towards a state in which we will no longer have antibiotics to fall upon when we actually need them?
Maybe I am exaggerating a little bit. Bacteria and viruses are unpredictable, and it would take generations of antibiotic misuse to eliminate antibiotics as a sensible method of treating infections. However, it would be a lie to assert that we, as humans, have absolutely nothing to worry about. According to the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, “more than 70% of the bacteria responsible for the 2 million infections acquired in US hospitals are resistant to at least one commonly used antibiotic.” They have a whole article about how antibiotics are being misused in the healthcare industry, but I am not here to throw facts at you.
With increased resistance to antibiotics comes the problem of having to discover new ones to combat those resistant organisms. Then those organisms that are subject to those treatments will also eventually gain resistance, and we will have to find new ones all over again. The newly resistant organisms, when invading human immune systems, will cause the disease to be more severe, longer lasting and harder to treat overall (as is happening with things like urinary track infections and pneumonia). The problem is, we are not discovering at the same rate as bacteria are becoming resistant. And how much can we actually rely on the possibility of new discoveries to treat common illnesses? It just is not sustainable.
Antibiotics are being misused, and we can already see those consequences in the human population. It is considered a global health problem projected to kill millions of people by 2050 (assuming climate change has not already killed us all by then), and the number of types of harmful microbes out there which have increased resistance are only increasing with no end in sight. Physicians are notorious for overprescribing antibiotics, and those bacteria that are targeted just have another force to deal with for survival. When a few of them survive with increased strength, we are looking at super-strains of infections that can kill people indiscriminately (biological warfare, anyone?). The way current prescription practices are upheld, I foresee tons of time, money and energy squandered on multiple infections that may just prove to be incurable.
Why aren’t we more scared of the consequences of this problem that are already happening? What happens when we get to that point in the future where no infection can be cured by antibiotics anymore? We could push off that fear to the people of the future, but is popping antibiotics like candy whenever you get an infection really the right course of action for now? Should we really keep abusing a genius stroke of discovery by Sir Fleming to the point of obsolescence? I am not saying we have to stop using antibiotics altogether, but I just think that every time our physician prescribes a certain antibiotic – and maybe he or she has done it multiple times already – we should consider what this can mean for ourselves and the world.
Lavanya Sambaraju is a contributor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.