Superbugs. Our Fault?
Friends recently told me that their son had been admitted to the hospital with something he originally thought was an ingrown hair. It was not. This young man is infected with MRSA (methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus), a superbug which now kills more Americans than HIV/AIDS. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, in 2005 alone, approximately 18,000 people died as a result of MRSA infection.
Surely, in this day and age, when we have antibiotics, people do not die of sepsis! Unfortunately, they do. As was reported in an excellent article in the Economist, more and more bacteria are becoming antibiotic resistant–so that 13% of hospitalized people are infected with an antibiotic resistant organism and almost 6% of those die of the infection.
Our current problems with antibiotic resistant bacteria are the result of several factors. First, bacteria become antibiotic resistant when they are exposed to nonlethal doses of antibiotics over an extended period of time. For example, when people take unnecessary antibiotics or do not finish the prescribed regime, the bacteria in their system can become resistant to the antibiotic they are taking. It is known that at least 50% of antibiotic prescriptions are unnecessary (the patient is not infected with a bacterium and their illness would resolve naturally), but some physicians would rather write a prescription than explain to an anxious patient that antibiotics are not needed. This short term solution to a patient’s complaints leads to long-term problems for the population.
Second, 80% of antibiotics used in the USA are given to farm animals–not because they are sick, but because the drugs cause the livestock to grow faster. This increases the farmer’s profit margin and decreases the price of meat. It also leads to the emergence of antibiotic resistant organisms, not to mention sometimes deadly allergies, in the general population.
Of course, if we were continuously developing new antibiotics, then the bacteria resistant to the former drugs would be susceptible to the new and development of antibiotic resistance would not be a problem. But the key here is “if we were”. We are not. In fact, as a result of technical difficulties and lack of financial incentives, the number of new antibiotics being developed keeps falling. Frustratingly, the modern techniques of genomics and proteomics have failed to yield new, effective drugs. In addition, because the goal is to cure people so they no longer need the drug, development of new antibiotics is less financially beneficial than development of, say, a drug that treats high blood pressure. This means that pharmaceutical dollars are directed elsewhere.
Therefore, the World Health Organization has made this year’s focus the development of new antibiotics and the theme, “No action today, no cure tomorrow.” Basically, for the sake of future generations, we must act with integrity in restricting our use of antibiotics and putting research dollars into development of new drugs. Who knows? It might save someone we love.