What is antibiotic resistance?
There are a lot of things that ordinary people can change about our lives to reduce the negative impacts of modern existence. Sometimes it’s as simple as re-using a jam jar before you throw it away, and sometimes it’s a complex and rewarding project like growing your own veggies or sourcing stuff like clothes and appliances second-hand. But this week, Otter investigates a choice that could literally mean the difference between life and death: whether, when and how you use antibiotics.
When we think ‘sustainable living’ the things that come to mind tend to be environmental issues like climate change and pollution, animal welfare and biodiversity, plus the labour rights and working conditions of the people who make our stuff. Health experts and scientists have fought to convince us that antibiotic resistance should be considered at least, if not more, important than these issues. Last year the director of the American Centre for Disease Control gave the public this grave warning:
Without urgent action now, more patients will be thrust back to a time before we had effective drugs. We talk about a pre-antibiotic era and an antibiotic era. If we’re not careful, we will soon be in a post antibiotic era. And, in fact, for some patients and some microbes, we are already there.
He’s not kidding around. Cases of antibiotic resistance are on the rise everywhere. In Australia treatment-resistant and incurable gonorrhoea has been reported. In some parts of the country up to 80 per cent of Staphylococcus cases, which can cause horrific skin infections, fail to respond to first-line antibiotic treatment.
If that’s not scary enough, consider that some experts believe we could lose most or all of the benefits of antibiotics within 20 years. This would mean not just a catastrophic rise in deaths due to infectious disease like pneumonia, tuberculosis, and syphilis, but also an end to many of the lifesaving modern medical procedures we’ve come to take for granted. The University of Technology, Sydney recently released a report for the media that characterises antibiotic resistance as a natural disaster.
Antibiotics are necessary for:
- Open heart surgery
- Safe childbirth
- Kidney dialysis
- Organ transplantation
- Industrial-scale food production
- Cancer chemotherapy
- Cosmetic surgery
- Hip and joint replacements
Bacteria can produce a new generation in as little as 20 minutes, making their rate of evolved resistance to environmental toxins (like the substances we use to make antibiotics) extremely efficient. This is why taking the entire course of prescribed antibiotics is so important (more on what else you can do later). You might start to feel better after a couple of days, because the medication has killed off most of the bacteria causing your illness. But the ones left are tougher than the dead bacteria, which we can tell because they are still alive. Unless you completely wipe them out, there is a chance they will evolve into a new strain that doesn’t respond to the antibiotics you were taking.
The ease with which individuals can mistakenly nurture new bacterial threats within their bodies also underscores the upside of antibiotic resistance: if we act now, there is much that can be done to prevent the problem from getting worse. Unfortunately, antibiotic knowledge in the wider community is low, and few people understand what needs to be done. A National Prescribing Survey found that 65% of Australian workers believe antibiotics are effective against colds and flu, a myth that results in thousands of unnecessary prescriptions every year.
So what can you do? There are three main areas in which your actions can make a difference.
This is basic stuff we all get taught in Kindergarten, but it’s critically important to help stop the spread of bacteria in the first place.
- Stay at home if you’re sick. Soldiering on might make you feel personally virtuous in the short term, but it’s a false economy that puts the community at risk.
- Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly with soap and water. Avoid products, either personal care or for cleaning your home, that contain antibacterial ingredients like Triclosan. They are no more effective than traditional cleaners and may contribute to resistance.
- Use tissues when you cough or sneeze. If there aren’t any around, sneeze into your elbow rather than your hand.
- Avoid touching your face, and wipe down shared surfaces like doorknobs and keyboards regularly.
Proper antibiotic use
From the Centre For Disease Control:
- Talk with your healthcare provider about antibiotic resistance.
- Ask whether an antibiotic is likely to be beneficial for your illness.
- Ask what else you can do to feel better sooner.
- Do not take an antibiotic for a viral infection like a cold or the flu.
- Do not save some of your antibiotic for the next time you get sick. Discard any leftover medication once you have completed your prescribed course of treatment.
- Take an antibiotic exactly as the healthcare provider tells you. Do not skip doses. Complete the prescribed course of treatment even if you are feeling better. If treatment stops too soon, some bacteria may survive and re-infect.
- Do not take antibiotics prescribed for someone else. The antibiotic may not be appropriate for your illness. Taking the wrong medicine may delay correct treatment and allow bacteria to multiply.
- If your healthcare provider determines that you do not have a bacterial infection, ask about ways to help relieve your symptoms. Do not pressure your provider to prescribe an antibiotic.
And finally, talk to those around you. Make sure your family uses antibiotics properly, and understands the very real and pressing risk of resistance. Antibiotic misuse is a community issue, and we can only prevent it by being aware of our duties to the most vulnerable: newborns, the elderly, and immunocompromised people are most at risk of developing incurable infections. Take your responsibility seriously, and make sure antibiotics aren’t a happy blip in the history of our species.
gif from gifsoup.com
Dracula sneeze courtesy of the University of Arizona Health Service
lamentables, antibiotics (CC)