Antibiotics for treating illness: A downward spiral?

In 2050 there could be more deaths from antibiotic resistance than from cancer. It has been estimated that, globally, 10 million people will die as a result of the inability to treat infections by 2050, and with each increasing year, an extra 10 million deaths could also be added to that number. So, what is causing the doctor’s medicine cabinet to empty of useful drugs? Could it be the result of an epidemic of casual prescribing?

Image: Pixabay. Antibiotic resistance has been named one of the world's most pressing public health concerns

Image: Pixabay. Antibiotic resistance has been named one of the world’s most pressing public health concerns

As children, it was my Mum’s top priority to see my brother and me through a happy and healthy childhood. Bumps were iced, scrapes were bandaged and I have many memories of being pinned to the doctors table as I reluctantly received my up-to-date vaccinations. Being an avid swimmer and lazy with a hairdryer, my ears were in perpetual dampness; I developed ear infections on an almost annual basis – my fault of course. My Mum wouldn’t think twice before taking me to the doctor. Just a 10 minute appointment and a prescription later and we were off to the pharmacy to pick up my antibiotics. This was and still is, the casual attitude to treatment of bacterial infections that is widely accepted. Why wait around in discomfort when I could be fit for the following week’s swimming lesson?

What is the problem with our casual attitude towards antibiotics? Well, it may be very simple. The overuse of antibiotics means that bacteria become acquainted with their mode of action and develop means of being able to survive in their presence. Antibiotics encourage the growth of these resistant strains as those lacking resistance are killed. These resistant bacteria, often termed ‘superbugs’, spread throughout the population, inflicting untreatable infections upon their hosts. The terrifying consequence of this is that antibiotics that are still able to treat infections are quickly disappearing. Eventually the doctor could be giving you a few weeks to live rather than a few weeks of trusty antibiotics.

There are two important steps we need to take: development of new antibiotics and education on their safe use. Pharmaceutical companies rarely fund drug discovery programmes as they are economically unviable. Using existing antibiotics is cheaper. Educating doctors and the public of the risks of antibiotic resistance may reduce the number of unnecessary prescriptions. Your immune system may be left to do its job for a less serious illness. Inconvenient, maybe, but what’s an extra week of not feeling great for saving a few million lives?

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